Scott Richards of designDATA: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Avoid the temptation to micromanage! Not being able to physically see your employees regularly can make you feel nervous, but it’s really important to trust your staff and ensure they feel trusted. I recently delegated a large project to one of my employees, and while I often had the urge to check-in on every task involved, I took a step back and just let him run with the project. I still touch base on a regular basis, but I let him feel ownership over the project and try not to micromanage it.

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 interviewingScott Richards.

Scott Richards joined designDATA in July 2017 as the Director of Training and Employee Engagement. In this role, he plans and executes weekly webinars for clients and delivers onsite training as needed. Scott is designDATA’s communications and productivity expert, making him uniquely positioned to offer strategies and tools which he has developed both prior to and as a result of the emerging reality of remote workplaces. Scott focuses on providing “communication excellence” and works hard to incorporate this into the training programs he develops for not only the designDATA team, but also for our clients. His experience and involvement in communications training with virtual office staff has granted him specific insights on what works and what does not.

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 always knew I wanted to do something with computers. I received my bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Brown University and, after spending many years as a programmer followed by a technical sales specialist and manager, I decided that I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make a more direct impact on people. So, I became a Training Manager and I’ve loved it ever since!

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

Early in my career, I was living, unhappily, in Connecticut. I desperately wanted to move to the DC area, but my boss told me that it would be a few years before I’d be eligible to transfer to my firm’s DC office. About a week later, he allowed me to fly there for an “exploratory interview” but confirmed that I’d still need to wait a few years to be able to transfer.

The day I came back from the interview, he told me that things had changed and I could transfer to DC, but…I had to let him know in the next four hours! After stressing to the max for all four, I told him “Yes!” and moved to DC a few months later. I’ve lived here happily ever since!

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

Mine is very simple — and very hard to adhere to: “Keep things in perspective.” Being a perfectionist has made it hard for me to accept results that don’t meet my lofty standards.

This has been especially true in business, where I’ve spent much of my career striving for some elusive goal. It took me years to learn to keep things in perspective. However, since I started to develop this habit, I am much less stressed, both at work and in my personal life.

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?

My sister is my biggest advocate, and whenever I run into issues at work or elsewhere, she is always there for me with valuable advice. Having someone reliable and loyal that understands you better than yourself provides great solace. I am incredibly grateful for her support, and I would not be where I am today without her.

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?

An obvious one is immediate communication, which can improve productivity. Having everyone physically in the same space means that you can find information and answers quickly from any team member. This means that you’re never waiting to move forward with a task until the right member emails you back.

Besides immediate communication and, in some cases, increased productivity, there is also the benefit of onsite collaboration. Even though many of us have been working remotely for months now due to the pandemic, remote collaboration is still a lot more complicated than onsite collaboration. I think things are improving in this area, but right now, in-office brainstorming is definitely a benefit of having a team physically together.

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?

Managing to create a distinct line between life and work can be very tricky when there is no proper office space. It’s one thing to shut down your computer, leave work, get in your car, and drive home. When you’re working in the same place that you eat and sleep, it’s not so easy to know when to “shut down” for the day. You also end up dealing with everyone’s respective productive hours, and for some, that’s 3 am!

Another challenge is creating and maintaining company culture. When our team is in the same space, we create company culture by sharing our days, ideas, and energy. These moments prompt the spontaneous mention of exciting and meaningful things in people’s past, present, and future. It can be challenging to foster this sort of company culture during remote work.

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.)

First, communicate often using the communication channels your employees prefer. I try to check-in much more frequently with my team than I would when working in the office. I find that frequent, shorter check-ins can be very effective. At designDATA, many of our client teams have 10-minute daily video “huddles” to set priorities for the day and provide that face-to-face-like interaction that we’re all missing by not being in the office. I recommend using video in your remote meetings as often as possible. Just seeing other human faces helps employees feel less isolated.

Second, be present and set that expectation for your team as well. One of the most challenging things about working remotely is that we’re all being bombarded with emails, instant messages, meeting requests, and more every day, making it really hard to focus. And many studies have shown that multitasking just doesn’t work. So, when I meet with either an individual or a team, I ask them to turn their cameras on (if we’re on a video call) and try to avoid responding to emails, texts, or phone calls while in the meeting. This is a tough thing to do, but it can drastically improve your meeting effectiveness.

The third tip is to communicate with staff during normal office hours. One of the main reasons employees have been more productive over the last year is that they’re just working more hours. It’s tough to know when to “leave work” when your work is no longer in an office but in the next room. Commit yourself and your team to certain work communication hours so that everyone gets some “turned off” time.

Number four: avoid the temptation to micromanage! Not being able to physically see your employees regularly can make you feel nervous, but it’s really important to trust your staff and ensure they feel trusted. I recently delegated a large project to one of my employees, and while I often had the urge to check-in on every task involved, I took a step back and just let him run with the project. I still touch base on a regular basis, but I let him feel ownership over the project and try not to micromanage it.

My final tip for communicating effectively when you’re not physically around your team members is to take full advantage of a great collaboration software. This is particularly important in the areas of instant messaging, file sharing, and project management. My company uses Microsoft 365 to run our business — we love Microsoft Teams for messaging and file sharing and Planner for project management. But there are many other excellent collaboration software options available; find one that works best for your business.

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?

The pandemic has caused a lot of communication challenges for many companies, and ours is no exception. Shifting from “popping into Lynn’s office” to ask a question to scheduling video calls to reach Lynn has been a significant paradigm shift. We allow employees to use their cell phones, which means the phones are beeping and buzzing all day. This can clearly create continual distractions and loss of attention during the workday.

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?

At designDATA, Microsoft Teams has seriously helped facilitate our move to remote work and the practical and productive functioning of this work environment. Some of the features of Microsoft Teams that we particularly love for replicating the physical workspace are Business Voice (which designDATA recently launched), the security features (cybersecurity is increasingly critical now that people are working from home), the instant messaging and notification features, and Teams video conferencing. We use video conferencing for every meeting we have, both internally and with our clients. It definitely helps to provide that face-to-face environment that we had while working in the office.

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

Now we’re talking! My dream “work at home” communication device would be a system where an employee gets on a video call with one or more colleagues, and all other communication mechanisms (cell phone, iPad, other apps on the computer) would automatically be rendered inoperable for the duration of the call. In other words, we could greatly reduce the possible distractions during work calls. I believe that would lead to much more focused and effective communication.

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?

The pandemic has definitely heightened the need for unified communication technology. The rise of people working from home has also seriously put pressure on these services’ calibre. We suddenly have to learn and use so many different software types to make remote work fluid and productive, so everyone is looking to streamline processes wherever possible. Unified communications greatly facilitate this, and because everyone is on the lookout for the best platform, these services and their features must be top-notch to compete.

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?

At their recent Ignite conference, Microsoft announced a new Mixed Reality platform called “Mesh,” which looks very interesting. While I’m not sure this will be of any real value to my company in the short-term, it does allow us to start thinking about perhaps using something like this for our clients or ourselves in the future.

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

Let’s face it: technology innovations can be scary. They bring with them a myriad of potential issues, including security issues. Regardless of the innovation, it will always be paramount to consider these new solutions’ security ramifications and ensure that adopting new technology does not compromise individual or corporate security.

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?

The pandemic has had a major impact on how we interact with our customers. Virtually all of our customers have been working remotely during the pandemic, and that has necessitated digital conversations, mainly in the form of video calls.

Since we use Microsoft 365, as do most of our clients, the transition has been relatively seamless. However, at the start of the pandemic there was definitely a learning curve for those that had never used Microsoft Teams before, and we spent a few months running daily and weekly training for our clients. Now, video calls have become a part of our daily routine and have been working very well.

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?

Yes, remote feedback can be super tricky. Unless a message is filled with happy-faces and exclamations, we all think too hard about the intended mood.

Because body language is so essential for these discussions, I always try to give remote feedback through video chats. While it’s not the same as physically being in the same room as someone, at least you have some semblance of eye contact and facial expression. And because you do lose some of that body language, your vocal tone takes on more importance when having these remote conversations. By the same token, this type of communication should never be handled using email or instant messaging — these methods are too impersonal, and it is challenging for the recipient to infer the true “tone” of the words.

Also, whenever possible, I try to start any feedback session with something positive. Team members who feel valued will be more motivated to correct and perfect their work.

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

A daily or weekly meeting is a great way to try and get everyone to communicate together often. Start the discussion with a check-in so that people can connect about their weekend and special things coming up in their lives. At designDATA, we use daily “huddles” that are literally 10 minutes long just to inform everyone on things like the day’s activities, who’s out of the office, who’s available, etc. As I’ve mentioned before, video meetings are much more effective than audio calls. Getting to see your teammates helps alleviate feelings of isolation that many employees are dealing with when working remotely.

Another way is to join virtual events together, perhaps using a Microsoft Teams chat to collaborate while the event airs. A webinar would be a great option to cultivate company culture, create a sense of camaraderie, and learn a few things!

You could also host a “Last day of the month” social zoom call where work topics are off the table. If these prompt any great work ideas, individuals can jot them down and share them during the next week’s brief.

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. 🙂

Wow, that’s a great question! For me, one of the things that seem to fly under the radar when talking about remote work is employees’ mental health. While remote work brings several advantages to the employee, it can also lead to mental health challenges, like feeling isolated when physically separated from coworkers for a long time or struggling to find a new work-life balance. This can be difficult for employees who don’t feel comfortable communicating about their struggles and employers who can’t physically see that a person is struggling.

So, if I could, I would inspire a movement to improve remote workers’ mental health. Perhaps this would look like webinars that acknowledge these problems and express ways of improving one’s habits and workspace, safe outdoor meetups for organizations, or an easily accessible forum where people can openly discuss the struggles they’re experiencing as remote workers. Something like this could significantly improve the lives of many right now.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

While my services themselves can’t be followed online, designDATA produces quality content continually for our clients and prospects to stay informed on what we’re up to. You can find our blog posts on our website, and our mailing list receives offers like free webinars, training, and valuable resources.

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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