Teri Keller of Automox: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Embed written communication. The first challenge, and usually the culprit for conflict in offices or remote environments, is communication. The way we communicate changes when we shift to a remote workplace and written communication becomes more imperative. Processes need to be well documented and handbooks should be created to guide employees on how to navigate things within the company. Employees need resources to answer their obvious questions and meetings should be focused on solving problems and making decisions. Great written communication should be added as a requirement in job descriptions and be a part of the evaluation process.

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 Teri Keller. She is the Vice President of Human Resources at Automox, the industry’s easiest-to-use, most-recommended, and most efficient cloud-native platform for endpoint management. As an HR leader with over 20 years of experience scaling high-growth tech companies, Teri leads Automox’s Human Resource organization and has been instrumental in the company’s recent shift to a remote-first workplace — with the goal of achieving a comprehensive HR stance that propels strong leadership and an engaged workforce. She has a passion for developing managers into strong leaders, organizational alignment and effectiveness, and change management with a focus on sustainability. Previously, Teri held HR leadership positions at companies including Sovrn Holdings, NetApp, and Lockheed Martin.

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?

Iactually stumbled into HR when I was working at The Gap for 7 years. I started as a seasonal worker in my junior year of high school. I went through their internship program while I was in college and became an assistant manager for a GapKids store. It was during this experience when I had the opportunity to mentor new associates, deal with employee relations, and it was the first time I had to fire an employee. These experiences opened my eyes to HR, specifically with handling employee engagement and the mentoring and coaching of managers. Now, after a little over 20 years in HR, I have found my passion in coaching and guiding employees to reach their potential, managers to be great leaders, and for organizations to achieve their goals. I love exploring the psychology and behavior behind our inner workings and how it impacts and affects the output of our work.

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

The most interesting story to me is about the decision that changed the direction of my career. I spent most of my early HR career as an HR business partner at Lockheed Martin. When I moved into management and led a distributed team across Colorado and California, I was feeling stuck in my role, being a middle person delivering and executing on HR initiatives. I had a desire to be in a more strategic role and work more closely with executives to support them in their organizations.

I decided to apply and interview for an Organizational Development (OD) role and got accepted. As I entered into the role, I thought my biggest learning curve would be around the ins and outs of OD. My colleagues were well educated in this function and had been in the role for most of their career, but I experienced a challenge I never anticipated. The executives I worked with would put a problem statement out that they needed help with — anything from “how can you fix my culture?” to “how can you make my team more productive?” Coming from the HR role, I had this mentality that I was here to fix their problem, so I would take on the burden and rack my brain on how I could fix the culture and help other teams work better together.

What I learned from this experience is that as an HR business partner, I was working with my teams in the wrong way. As an HR or OD professional, we are not here to solve the problem, we are here to partner and consult with our leaders on solutions to the problem. It was at this moment early in my OD role that I realized that cultures can’t be fixed with a magic wand because cultures are built one behavior at a time. I had to make the mental shift from being a support figure to the organization to being a consultant. I learned about having courage to ask questions and then ask more questions in order to dig deeper in understanding the underlying behaviors.

It is not until you go one level deeper in your questioning that you can really break through the surface to identify how you can effectively help an organization. This was a pivotal moment in my career that brought me back to the HR business partner role and allowed me to grow as a leader within Human Resources.

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

If you ask my family and friends what quote describes me best, they would say, “It always works out.” This has been my life motto. I am an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs (MBTI®) scale and this motto always seems to serve me well in life and with work, and to remain adaptable. Adaptability is key to staying agile and being a lifelong learner, especially when working in startups and high tech companies. Throughout my life, I have learned that it doesn’t always go as planned — actually very rarely. I love seeing how people’s creative minds work when something doesn’t go as planned and we have to find a new solution, direction, or plan.

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 have a number of people I am grateful towards, but there is one person in particular who has always been a mentor, cheerleader, and friend. He was one of the first executives I worked with when I entered corporate HR. I remember my interview with him and after I got the job, he told me he was impressed with my questions and curiosity about the business. He has been my sounding board and has helped steer me in the right direction throughout my career. Now, we have reached a point in both our careers where we utilize each other’s knowledge and experience to guide and help us through professional and life experiences. I still talk to this mentor and he continues to cheer me on.

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?

Nothing can replace the benefits of physically being together. The energy of being together allows us to understand the nuances of body language, verbal communication, and unspoken bond. New employees are able to connect with their coworkers faster because they pass them in the halls, meet in the kitchen, or sit next to someone who is not on their team. Being together fosters efficiency, collaboration, and a physical sense of community. Verbal communication is imperative when working in an office.

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 a variety of challenges that can overtake a team when you’re forced to shift from an in-office mindset to remote-first overnight. There are the 3 C’s that have been impacted by the sudden shift to remote: Communication, connection, and collaboration.

It’s a lot harder to foster the 3 C’s through a screen or virtual chat. The sudden shift to working from home ripped off the bandaid from seeing everyone every day and led to losing that physical connection. The ‘quick catch up’ in the kitchen was no longer happening and virtual meetings were added to calendars as an unfulfilling replacement. Meeting overload and isolation became a real thing.

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.)

COVID-19 has forced us to evolve the way we work and communicate. What worked well pre-pandemic (remote or in person) needs to transform for the world we live in today. As some companies go back into the office or shift to a hybrid model, they still need to establish a remote-first mindset to make the transition successful. Here are five ways to do that:

  1. Embed written communication

The first challenge, and usually the culprit for conflict in offices or remote environments, is communication. The way we communicate changes when we shift to a remote workplace and written communication becomes more imperative. Processes need to be well documented and handbooks should be created to guide employees on how to navigate things within the company. Employees need resources to answer their obvious questions and meetings should be focused on solving problems and making decisions. Great written communication should be added as a requirement in job descriptions and be a part of the evaluation process.

2. Build a remote-first workplace culture

Establish a remote-first mindset within your company, even if you’re not fully remote yet. When we are completely present and have a physical connection, employees have a feeling of belonging in the workplace. In a remote company, connection can become stifled and it’s important to put practices in place that give employees the opportunity to connect with coworkers outside of their teams.

It’s harder for new employees to learn about the inner workings of the company when they join from their home office. At Automox, we introduced an ‘Onboarding Buddy’ program to help new hires navigate the company, understand company norms, and offer a resource to connect them with other employees in the company or simply answer their questions. We also have various activities that allow new and existing employees to connect, such as a #randomcoffee channel on Slack where every week, employees are randomly paired for virtual coffee. We also invested in tools such as Pingboard, that have our organizational chart and profiles and connect people who have similar interests. Companies need to be creative in how they connect their workforce as having that sense of belonging is key to success and optimizing output and productivity.

3. Restructure your meetings

When a company goes from in office to remote, there is no longer the ‘quick catch up’ in the kitchen or swiveling our chair to ask a question. Instead, virtual meetings are added to our calendars. What may be a quick five-minute chat turns into a 30-minute meeting. Instant messaging is also used extensively and has caused interruption to work or thinking time. Remote work has seen a rise in meetings and companies need to have better hygiene and policies around meeting cadence. At Automox, we established ‘clean meetings’ practices where each meeting needs to have a clear agenda, we honor a 25- or 50-minute threshold to allow for breaks, and expectations are set around the type of meeting (informative, decision, brainstorm).

4. Redefine how you collaborate

At Automox, we have seen a shift in the way we collaborate. Nothing can replace the physical white board and camaraderie of the team sitting together with side jokes, laughter, and relationships building organically — that creates a powerful energy. It’s hard to mimic that type of collaboration in a remote culture. When you are on Zoom, we all have a level of politeness that sneaks in and people don’t want to talk over each other. It’s crucial that companies adopt asynchronous work to allow for inclusivity across the company. Working asynchronously allows employees to work on their own time and problems can get solved without having to add another meeting to our calendar. If teams work together asynchronously, collaboration has the ability to take on a new definition.

5. Provide support for mental health

For many years, mental health was not a topic for the workplace. Employers wanted to separate employees’ well-being from performance and productivity for fear of crossing a legal line. This past year, marked by the pandemic, has broken down those barriers. Managers need to reach out to employees with empathy, bringing in their own personal struggles and helping their teams work through their challenges.

As a company, we have brought to light the importance of employees’ well-being and openly discussed issues and resources in our all company meetings. We want employees to know that they can talk openly about how they are feeling and how it is impacting their productivity, and work with their manager on solutions. Being remote and feeling isolated is a dangerous combination and we strongly encourage our managers and employees to weave this into their weekly conversations.

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 addressed this communication issue head on at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. When we had to make the quick shift to remote, employees had a lot of questions around how we were handling it, what was happening to the offices, and what the expectations were around working hours. We knew as a leadership team that keeping people informed, even when we didn’t have all the answers, was the right direction to take. Prior to the pandemic, we had a quarterly all hands meeting where we brought everyone together in the office. When we shifted to remote, our quarterly meetings first moved to a weekly, then bi-weekly, and now back to a monthly cadence.

Following the initial shift to remote work, Automox opened the aperture and we started recruiting across the United States. We began 2020 with everyone based in one state (Colorado) and by the end of the year we had employees across 16 states. With a fully distributed workforce, the way we communicated had to change. We have built out a great cadance for our all hands meetings and constantly share information on where we stand against the financial goals of the company and share updates on our OKRs and progress towards our roadmap. We feature departments to share what they are working on and it overall allows everyone to get together and see each other regularly. The chat during our town hall meetings is awesome and it is such a great way to see how strong and supportive our culture is within Automox.

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?

I don’t believe tools solve problems, although they are certainly a contributing factor. It is the behaviors, however, that need the most attention and focus.

With our shift to remote, the two tools we work with the most are Slack for communication and Zoom for video conferencing. Each of these tools lead to us creating certain behaviors that we often need to adjust. Slack is an easy way to quickly talk to someone, just like you would in the office when you had a question. When we are in the office and we see an employee has headphones on or a note stating they are working on a project, we respectfully oblige and do not interrupt them. With Slack, you may send a quick message to get something off your plate, even though it might interrupt the person. At Automox, we have leaned heavily on the use of icons to explain where we are at the moment. If the

icon is next to your name, it means ‘Do Not Disturb’,

if you have

this means I am at lunch and not answering Slack. We have to use the icons to set our boundaries and expectations around our response times.

Zoom is another tool we use regularly. Early on we put an expectation in place to have cameras on at all times. As a presenter or facilitator of a meeting, there is a level of engagement and connection you feel when you can see people’s faces. As a participant it allows you to be fully present. However, Zoom fatigue is a real thing. As a company we need to be mindful of this. We need to be okay with someone not being an active participant in a meeting and maybe taking a walk during a call. We have seen employees do ‘walking meetings’ where they talk and get out for a walk to get fresh air. We have also implemented ‘clean meetings’, which allows individuals to own their meeting schedule and calendars. ‘Clean meetings’ means each meeting needs to have an agenda to set expectations for the participants — and if 50% of the participants decline, then you can decline. Meetings should honor the 25- or 50-minute threshold to allow for breaks and if you don’t believe you need to be in the meeting, take yourself out of it.

Whatever tool you find that works within your company, remember to not only implement it across the company, but to define the expected behaviors for it to be successful.

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

As previously mentioned, communication features or systems are always good to put in place, but the behaviors that are set around these tools is what is most important. Each tool that is implemented is followed by an output of behavior and companies need to ensure these behaviors lead to productivity and efficiency.

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 certainly brought many tools out of the woodwork and we have found that there are a lot of different communication channels we need to monitor. The need to read email and Slack, keep up with tasks via JIRA, and respond to the occasional text from a co-worker can be daunting. Unified communication technology can make our electronic communications more efficient.

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?

Those emerging technologies can certainly play a big role in bringing employees closer together, making things like brainstorm sessions or company events more engaging and fun. VR for example can make people feel like they are in the same room with their coworkers by transforming their surroundings and creating an office-like virtual environment. I’m excited to continue to find and implement the tools that work best for our team and increase employee satisfaction, motivation, and productivity.

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

In the past year, we have all become comfortable with being behind our computer screens and not having to be physically present with others, whether it’s friends, coworkers, or family. My concern is that the pendulum swings too far one way where technology tries to replace the physical interaction. We are humans and still strive for that in-person interaction — I don’t think that can, and hopefully will never be fully replaced.

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 was difficult for everyone — within our company and outside of it. We were understanding in our dealings with customers, engaged with them regularly through video calls, and even provided a guide to help them adjust their cybersecurity strategies to the new remote work environment.

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?

The skill of giving constructive feedback effectively does not come naturally. Every leader and employee needs to continuously work at mastering feedback. It always has to start with the conversations that come before providing the feedback. I would ask any leader questions such as “how connected are you with your team members individually?”, “what do you know about your employees outside of work?”, “how does your employee like to receive feedback?”, “what type of constructive conversations have you had in the past?”, “how did they respond (both verbally and non-verbally)?” Managers need to know how to read their employees. There needs to be trust and respect for constructive feedback to be effective. I believe that constructive feedback can happen through any medium if the leader knows their employees, understands their cues, and actively listens at all times.

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

Provide a space for employees to connect with one another. In the past year, we have had fun engagement events that brought our team together virtually through scavenger hunts and our own ‘Automox Got Talent.’ We have also been able to give back to our community and collectively raised $25k for local food banks and people impacted by job loss last year — all organized in our Slack channel #giving. Saddened by the recent shooting at a grocery store in Boulder, Co, our headquarters’ hometown, we also donated to the Colorado Healing Fund on behalf of the Automox employees to show our support to those impacted by this tragic event.

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?

I would love to see a movement around shifting people’s perception of HR — from being seen as a problem solver to being a strategic business partner. People tend to think that HR is out to “get them”, while in fact HR is there to facilitate and help build and maintain the relationships between employees and foster an inclusive and positive culture.

Especially in today’s dynamic and distributed work environment, HR has the challenge of balancing employees’ professional growth, wellbeing, and mental health while achieving demanding business goals alongside company management. HR thus needs to evolve to be more than just the operational machine that develops and enforces processes — it needs to become a consultant and coach for managers and employees to lead important, and often difficult, conversations and guide them towards solutions.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can follow Automox on TwitterLinkedIn, and Facebook, and read our blog posts on our website!

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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