Clear Communication — When you talk to someone face to face, you not only hear the words that are spoken but also read the facial expressions, tone and pitch of voice, expressed emotion, and body language in order to fully understand what’s being said and the context behind it. In a remote setting, you rely much more on written and verbal communication to process information.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Secrist.
Matt Secrist is the COO and Co-Founder of BKA Content, an online content writing service. Matt has worked in the digital marketing industry for over a decade, providing high quality writing and editing services to small businesses, marketing agencies and enterprise companies. Matt is an avid NBA basketball fan, dedicated husband and father, and has a love for the outdoors.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
I graduated from college back in 2009 with a finance degree. At the time, the economy was in shambles and my job prospects were low. I moved in with my brother that summer to save some money while looking for a “real” job.
While there, he introduced me to something he had been dabbling in over the summer called SEO, or search engine optimization. He had been creating websites around high-volume keywords and then writing original content to put on his site and other sites to link back to it. He had a full-time marketing job, so this was just something he was doing on the side to create some additional, passive income.
I joined him that summer and we spent a lot of time creating sites, writing content, and learning more about the ins and outs of digital marketing. We had fun doing it and saw some success, but neither of us thought at the time it would turn into much more.
That fall I moved out to continue looking for a job in the finance field. As a goodbye present, my brother made a one-page website where other people doing SEO for their own sites could order one, five or ten written articles from me. I had a knack for writing, and my brother saw that there was a lack of other places online to order quality, English-written content. He figured I might get few projects here and there to help me get by until I found a full-time position.
Fast forward a few months and I was so busy writing from the orders I was getting on that one-page site that I called him and told him we were on to something and I needed him to quit his salaried marketing position and come help me turn this into something real. He trusted me, quit his job and the rest is history.
We are going on 11 years of business this year, and we have turned our little operation into one of the premier content writing services on the web with hundreds of high-quality writers, dedicated account management and custom ordering/delivery.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the most interesting stories that has happened to me personally is the first award our company ever won. About 5 years into business, I realized that in order to win business awards you actually had to apply for them. Imagine that!
Armed with this new information, I went and applied for a few business awards that our company qualified for. Almost cheekily, I applied for a “Fastest Growing Business in Utah”, award. To my utter surprise, our application was accepted, and we had been told we were in the top 100 that year.
To accept the award, you had to buy a table at the awards ceremony where they’d have a fancy lunch and you’d hear from the state governor or some other professional speaker. Thinking this might be the only time we’d ever win something like this, we splurged on a table and invited our entire team of 10 to go.
At the ceremony, but before it started, we took wagers on where on the list of the top 100 fastest growing businesses we would land. Some had us near the top 50 and I secretly scoffed at the notion. Still believing it might have been a fluke we had even been accepted, I think I guessed somewhere in the 80s (still thinking that was high).
For the reveal, the awards ceremony started at 100 and worked their way down to the fastest growing company. Right when it started, I crossed my fingers that we weren’t number 100. 100 came and went, and we passed the first test. I let out a sigh of relief, feeling we were probably in the 90s somewhere.
The 90s came and went and we weren’t named. I couldn’t believe it. Then came the 80s. Still no BKA Content. We started getting excited. Then came the 70s and 60s. We got to the 50s, and we still weren’t named. We had to be somewhere in the top 50! I couldn’t believe it. My heart was beating out of my chest, incredulous at what was happening.
Then they got to the 40s, 30s and 20s and still no mention of us… At this point, I started to get really worried. This had to be wrong. We were still a small company that primarily worked remotely. We didn’t wear suits to work, make million-dollar deals or rub shoulders with other big companies that won awards. We just were hard workers that focused on culture, honesty and improving our little operation day after day. There’s no way we were in the top 20. There had to be a mistake.
I started to feel incredibly anxious that there had been a mix-up with another company — or worse, that we weren’t going to be listed at all. I was imagining the concerned, embarrassed faces of my entire team when the presenters got to number one and we still hadn’t been named. Were we so pathetic that we got wrongfully invited to this event and it was all my fault?
As I was sitting there sweating profusely from guilt and anxiety, they started the count into the top 20. 19,18, 17,16… When they hit 16, suddenly I saw our company name pop up on the huge screen on the stage. A huge wave of relief came over me, immediately replaced by intense excitement. We cheered and hugged each other, not believing we had actually made it into the top 20 fastest growing companies in the state.
It was one of the biggest emotional rollercoasters I’ve ever experienced during a 30-minute period, but also one of the most rewarding. Long story short, sometimes you can get so focused on fixing what’s wrong in your company that you forget to appreciate what’s going right. It’s as important to celebrate the wins as it is to learn from the failures. Not only that, but you are also probably doing better than you think you are.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first started exhibiting at a certain digital marketing tradeshow circuit, I once worked my way into a rooftop party in downtown Chicago held for an elite group of conference attendees. Most of the people invited were influential business leaders from Fortune 500 companies, so I figured this would be a great chance to network with companies I hadn’t had access to previously.
I got introduced to a big wig at a large enterprise company who, when he found out my company did content writing, wanted to know more about the types of companies we service. Naively thinking that enterprise companies only want to know if a vendor has done work for other large enterprise companies, I spouted off 5 to 10 of the biggest companies we’d worked with in the past to try and impress him.
I finished my pitch, feeling great about the repertoire of companies I had just listed. He paused for a second and then said something to the effect of, “Oh, I was looking for a company that had experience working with small businesses that could help service my clients”. Before I could tell him that most of the companies we worked with were, in fact, small businesses, he had moved on to the next contact on his list.
I learned then and there that asking questions and listening first to understand what people are looking for is the only way to really help them.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
In my experience, burnout is usually the result of poor training and a lack of planning. If employees are frequently subjected to burnout, chances are they are blind to red flags that could’ve helped them avoid it in the first place.
If your employees are experiencing burnout, avoid the urge to immediately point out any mistakes they may have made. First, work closely with that team member to understand the entirety of the issue. If you can approach burnout as their advocate instead of their boss, they will respond better to feedback.
Once you’ve worked side by side with your team, you have a better understanding of their pain points and more credibility to teach them. Train them to look at things proactively and how to think outside of the box to avoid issues, rather than taking shortcuts and having to deal with problems later. Give them context, examples, tips and tricks.
One last thing to be careful of in using this approach is to not just do the work for them. Rather, take the extra time to teach them how to do it, why it matters, ask them to complete the task on their own, and then give constructive feedback as to what they did right and what they can do better.
Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Some companies have many years of experience with managing a remote team. Others have just started this, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us how many years of experience you have managing remote teams?
I have 11 years of experience managing remote teams.
Managing a team remotely can be very different than managing a team that is in front of you. Can you articulate for our readers what the five main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?
In my experience, the five main challenges regarding managing a remote team are as follows:
- Personal Relationships — In an office, you rub shoulders with your coworkers every single day. In a remote environment, you could go weeks (or even months) without seeing anyone in person.
- Consistent Accountability — Impromptu department meetings and updates can happen regularly in a physical office. In a remote setting, meetings don’t happen organically and have to be carefully planned out in advance.
- Clear Communication — When you talk to someone face to face, you not only hear the words that are spoken but also read the facial expressions, tone and pitch of voice, expressed emotion, and body language in order to fully understand what’s being said and the context behind it. In a remote setting, you rely much more on written and verbal communication to process information.
- Project Transparency — In-house teams can talk frequently about where they are in a project and next steps to move the process along. Remote teams rely much more on central information hubs to automate the transfer of tasks and deadlines and keep the project moving along.
- Company Culture — The way you decorate your office space, the layout of the rooms themselves and the way you interact with people in the hallways say a lot about your company culture. In a remote setting, you don’t have control over decorations, layouts or hallway interactions. Culture opportunities have to be planned out in advance or they rarely happen at all.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
Here are the ways we have tackled each of these challenges:
1. Personal Relationships
Establishing meaningful personal relationships is not only a job perk, but a necessary component of mental and emotional health in the workplace. While friendship cannot be planned, interaction can be. Making it a daily/weekly goal or “to-do” to reach out to someone on your team and to compliment them or ask them questions about their life is a worthwhile endeavor.
Not only that, video makes a world of difference! Switch to a “video calls only” policy to give people a glimpse of each other’s personal lives. Even seeing your office space, wall decorations, and your facial expressions during a call can help someone to feel like they know you better.
Last, set up periodical “getting to know you” activities in your meetings. Giving different team members an opportunity to present something forces people to get out of their comfort zones and share a little more about themselves.
2. Consistent Accountability
While you likely already had some accountability meetings set up for your departments while working in the office, its important to note that it doesn’t always translate over directly to a remote setting.
In remote work settings, meetings ALWAYS need to be set in advance and you’ll find that routine becomes your greatest ally. When meetings don’t happen regularly when working remotely, they usually stop happening at all.
Each department has its own needs and metrics to consider. Create a recurring meeting schedule for each department considering collaboration needs, goal reporting and team morale. Department heads need meeting agendas to follow to keep them short (long virtual meetings can be even worse than long in-person meetings!), and always follow up after the meeting with an email outlining assigned tasks so you can report on them at the beginning of the next meeting.
A good rule of thumb is at least one weekly department meeting to build off of work completed the previous week and to set short-term goals for the coming week. Try to avoid anything bi-weekly, or anything that switches days each week in order to keep things simple for attendees.
3. Clear Communication
I may be biased (since I own a writing company), but clear written communication becomes a core component when managing remote teams. If you rely mostly on verbal communication in the workplace, you’re going to run into issues.
Crafting effective emails is an art. That being said, it’s something that every business professional can and should master. While you will still need the verbal communication skills to motivate and connect with people on calls, you’ll need great written communication skills to clearly outline goals, tasks, assignments and next steps.
Make it a goal to never have a call that you don’t write a follow up “recap” email for. This gives people a clear roadmap to follow and gives you a paper trail of accountability.
4. Project Transparency
When working remotely, the cloud is your friend! Utilize paid software to help you manage tasks and milestones or take advantage of free tools like Google Docs and Sheets to create your own collaborative workspaces.
For us, utilizing an “assignment board” using Google sheets has been a great way to complete projects without having to issue out assignments for every task. Where we work with hundreds of writers and editors all across the country, it allows us to set up teams and parameters without managing each person directly. When given the right parameters, people tend to govern themselves.
If you’ve been relying on in-person interaction to move your projects along up to this point, then allow remote work to force you into the 21st century of online company organization. You will be grateful you did.
5. Company Culture
I’m a fervent believer that company culture should drive everything that you do. Without core values and a positive work environment, people can quickly get jaded by what they do for “work”. Enter company culture. But how do you do this remotely?
The first thing to realize is that culture in a remote setting has to be planned out. Team initiatives, incentives, parties and hangouts have to be planned with remote restrictions in mind. While this may seem like a tall task, creative companies are quickly adapting.
There are all kinds of creative teambuilding games that can be played over Zoom, team goals you can set, puzzles you can solve and movies you can make — all from your chair in your home office.
The key is to set milestones for bigger initiatives and incentives, but to also create more frequent, lighthearted settings for employees to engage in. For us, a weekly team hangout with small challenges, games and positive/funny messages has been enough to recreate a level of bonding and camaraderie without being physically together.
While creating meetings for “fun” may seem like an oxymoron, it absolutely works if done correctly.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of managing 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 employee?
I think the theory behind effectively giving honest feedback is the same, the only real difference with remote working situations is in the tools you use to do that.
First, no one likes surprises. Not only do they not like them, they typically don’t respond well to them either. Always set up a specific time in the future to talk to them about the feedback. Typically, writing an email to set up the call and explain some of the basics of what you’ll go over is the best way to get them ready for it. That way, they’ll go into the call already thinking about things they could’ve done better.
Next, use video conferencing for the actual call. Being able to see you in person can bring back a lot of the nuance lost from physical meetings. Have some meeting notes that you follow to keep things on point and address each item you want to cover.
Last, summarize your call in a recap email. This email should be positive, but also to the point. Use bullet points to cover each important item that was covered. This gives you a paper trail of communication that you can both refer to if there are issues again in the future.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
This might sound odd, but use more exclamation points! You laugh, but it works.
In reality, when you’re only working with words you do have to use a combination of grammar rules, sentence structure, punctuation and vocabulary to clearly explain feedback while also setting the stage for the tone and voice of the delivery. It is not an easy task!
You’ll want to be careful that you’re not so “to the point” that you come across as a jerk, but not so flowery that you confuse them with what you’re actually trying to say. Start with an introductory sentence or two that asks them how they’ve been or tells them a little bit about what you’ve been working on to set the stage that you are peers.
Next, address the situation as a whole and give them context as to why it matters and why you wanted to reach out. If you can convey that this is to help them and make it easier for them to do their job, you come across as a support instead of a taskmaster.
When giving constructive feedback, always touch on the things they did right as well as what can be improved. Nobody wants to hear about all their faults and nothing more. Knowing you did something right gives you hope you can do other things right as well. Build off of what they’ve done well to show you have confidence in them.
Last, ask them a question that requires a response. Getting a response from them will tell you a lot about how the information in your email was received. If they are very short and to the point, they probably didn’t take it well. If they respond positively to your feedback, you know you’ve done your job well.
While email communication has its challenges, one advantage you do have through written communication, though, is that you can read through it multiple times and revise it before actually sending it off.
One expert tip is to never send off an email with constructive feedback without walking away from your first draft and coming back to it later to read again with fresh eyes. Go through a couple of rounds of revisions, and even have another trusted person read over it first before sending it to see if your message is being interpreted the way you intended it.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but are forced to work remotely due to the pandemic. Are there potential obstacles one should avoid with a team that is just getting used to working remotely?
Yes! Establish strategic times for consistent communication. We recently went back to full-time remote work during the pandemic as well, and realized that the first thing we took for granted while working in an office is how much communication and interaction comes naturally just because of your physical proximity to someone else.
In a remote setting, those chance encounters don’t happen. If you don’t establish set communication channels (and times) for each department and those teams to be able to talk, it usually doesn’t happen. As time goes by, morale will suffer.
Make sure you consider each department and create a meeting schedule for each that caters to the job demands first, but also takes into account the personalities within that department. Some people do need outlets for additional communication, while others prefer to work more on their own.
What do you suggest can be done to create a healthy and empowering work culture with a team that is remote and not physically together?
Always turn on video for calls. Nothing is less personal than talking to a computer screen that has your own documents showing on it. Making everyone turn on their cameras will likely be a bit painful at first, but people will get over it quickly.
Once you’ve established this as a norm, it will do wonders for the connectivity of your team. Being able to say you “saw” someone recently is so much more meaningful than knowing that you wrote them a message or heard them on a call.
Next, plan time to get together either online or out of office (pandemic-willing) to do meaningful activities. For our company, we’ve established a weekly virtual “team hangout” where we can chit chat and do team-building activities together.
We usually establish some team culture goals that have included everything from team exercise goals to discussing influential books, sharing favorite songs and playing bingo together.
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. 🙂
I’ve suggested this in the past, but I truly believe one of the most freeing things in today’s world is to disconnect from the internet when you’re around the people you love. Get off your phones/apps/tablets/social media apps and be present. There’s a time and place for the internet and social media, and it’s not when you’re spending time in-person with someone else.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
J.R.R Tolkien — “Short cuts make long delays.”
Aside from the fact that I love a good LOTR movie marathon, I feel like this quote has been relevant in nearly every aspect of my life. There is no adequate substitute for hard work, nor greater teacher than failure. Taking ‘short cuts’ robs you of life greatest lessons and rewards.
Thank you for these great insights!