Leigh Knight of One Workplace: “A routine establishes a sequence of actions that often trigger certain modes throughout the day”

A routine establishes a sequence of actions that often trigger certain modes throughout the day. Walking in and out of an office, for example, triggers when we are stepping in and out of work mode. This is just one example of the many routines and triggers that we may have had throughout the day while […]

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A routine establishes a sequence of actions that often trigger certain modes throughout the day. Walking in and out of an office, for example, triggers when we are stepping in and out of work mode. This is just one example of the many routines and triggers that we may have had throughout the day while working in the office. When working remotely it is easy to lose sight of structure, and disorganization of the day can make it difficult to focus and therefore be productive.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leigh Knight, Sales Director at One Workplace, the world’s leading Steelcase Dealer, with a focus on creating spaces that inspire people and transform organizations. She understands workplace trends and how physical workspace shapes behaviors that impact productivity, creativity, and team collaboration, and brings those insights to work with her team and her customers daily. Leigh has a unique vantage point on the topic of “work-life balance” as she juggles her career with four children at home.

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”?

Human connection and my ability to impact people are concepts that have fascinated me for as long as I can remember.

One example of this is a childhood memory of a family vacation to San Francisco, where we encountered an unhappy lady selling bread in Ghirardelli Square. As we walked by I smiled at her and remember feeling disheartened by my inability to get her to smile at me in return. I became determined to crack her icy exterior and convinced my family to walk back and forth in front of her until I finally achieved my goal. That memory stays with me not only because I learned the value of perseverance, but because I remember how good it felt to know that I had brought a smile to the face of someone who might not have smiled otherwise that day. That afternoon, I was “selling” something that I truly believed in — happiness — and the result was intoxicating. That is one of many small moments that laid the stepping stones on the path to an inevitable career in sales for me.

I also have to credit my dad for passing on his “sales DNA.” He worked in the commercial furniture industry for my entire life, and while growing up, I had the privilege of joining him in the office for “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” I not only gained exposure to the industry but more importantly, saw successful career women at work.

After graduating from Cal Poly, I took my first sales job as a technical recruiter at LoopNet. This was a high-pressure sales environment where everyone stood around the table cranking out phone calls, and once you’d catch someone’s interest on the line, everyone would stop and watch you while you pitched a candidate like your life depended on it! I quickly climbed the ranks at LoopNet and became the fastest promotion to Regional Sales Manager after only six months with the company. I spent the next five years learning how to become an effective leader under the great mentorship of our Vice President of Sales. I remained with LoopNet until deciding to join One Workplace as a salesperson in 2012. After years of successfully developing the business and managing large client accounts, I decided to seize the opportunity to move into leadership so I could focus on fostering a feeling of connection within a team and could have more of a direct impact on the people within our organization.

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

It’s hard to think of anything more interesting than being quarantined for over six months while trying to run a sales team during a pandemic! It took a complete jolt to our lives for us to reevaluate the way we had been doing things. An opportunity has been created for all of us to be really deliberate about the way we return to the office, and I believe that ultimately we will all be better for having seen our lives through a much different lens. The key outcome of this experience has to be that we begin designing our experience in the office around people rather than tasks.

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?

Anybody who knows me can tell you that I basically live in high heels. When I first started in the industry, a broker asked me to visit a client’s space that he wanted our help with furnishing. When I showed up, it was completely under construction. He handed me a hard hat and vest, and then honed in on the high heels I was wearing. I remember turning beet red as he asked if I had different shoes, and of course I didn’t, so I precariously walked the job site and just prayed that I’d make it out without a rolled ankle. From that day forward, I keep a pair of flats in the trunk of my car so I can be “construction zone” ready at a moment’s notice.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

I believe that beyond Zoom fatigue, the biggest causes of burnout right now are the lack of variety in the day and the lack of boundaries and rituals that trigger us to know when to turn work on and off.

My team and I look through our schedules on Monday and give our calendars a “haircut.” Are there meetings that can be combined or delegated? Can hour-long meetings be shortened to allow for a deep breath and a bio-break in between? Are there meetings that can be taken away from the screen?

I also do my best to model these behaviors by doing things like taking my one-on-one meetings almost exclusively on walks. My team has come to expect it and many join me in walking and talking.

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?

We have all been thrust into a circumstance that gives most of us no choice but to manage remote teams. We are fortunate that at One Workplace, this change was not as abrupt as it might have been, given that we have, over the last few years, taken a human-centered design approach that gives us more autonomy over when and where we do our best work, even if that is at home. Our aim is to build a new way of working that brings together culture, design, and technology to give employees a sense of belonging and freedom.

So, we already had a hybrid working environment in place, but the pandemic is taking us right back to the very same issue that drove us to make the change in the first place: a lack of choice and control over where to do our best work. Managing remote teams is most successful when people have an option of where to work rather than a mandate.

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?

To be clear: I do not believe we can manage as effectively when teams are permanently remote. I do believe that for many the workplace will permanently expand to include the home, but the home office will provide an enhancement, not a replacement. The difficulties we’ve endured over the last six months have created a strong case for the option to return to the office.

I believe the five areas where we face the biggest challenges when managing remote teams are:

Efficiency: Not everyone is set up to work well from home. Whether it be family distractions, a lack of needed resources, bandwidth issues, or other obstacles, productivity can suffer. Layer onto that economic challenges and other unique circumstances caused by Covid-19, and we often find that more time is needed to produce the same amount of output compared to the average pre-quarantine workday.

Engagement: Engagement is directly associated with our feelings of fulfillment at work and with job loyalty. When the weight of circumstances that are out of our control hinders our ability to do meaningful work, it is nearly impossible to remain engaged full time.

Social Capital: Most people stay at a company because of the relationships they develop there, so it’s no surprise that studies show that longtime remote workers don’t stay with their companies long term. The lack of connectedness is directly related to a lack of loyalty as well as a lack of output.

Work-Life Balance: A few weeks after we began sheltering in place, I wrote an article about how the experience of working from home allowed me to feel more balanced, and as though I could finally authentically be myself. With the reality of being a working mom on display in every Zoom meeting I attended, I finally had permission to stop trying to separate the two. In that moment, imperfection seemed celebrated; people were settling into the comfort of working in sweats, and kids were making appearances in the upper corners of Zoom calls. Pets were getting an extra walk each day, and dinner was on the table by 6. It was an appreciated shake-up to our daily routines.

That honeymoon phase was short-lived. Eventually the workload piled on even higher than before, my schedule became overtaken by Zoom calls that wouldn’t have been necessary if we were all in the office, and I was forced to tell my kids all day long to go away, that their tears could wait, that their fights were petty, and that their requests for attention in that moment were secondary to my meeting. We weren’t cut out to have these lines as blurred as they’ve become, and without strong intention, there will be no balance at all.

Routine: A routine establishes a sequence of actions that often trigger certain modes throughout the day. Walking in and out of an office, for example, triggers when we are stepping in and out of work mode. This is just one example of the many routines and triggers that we may have had throughout the day while working in the office. When working remotely it is easy to lose sight of structure, and disorganization of the day can make it difficult to focus and therefore be productive.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

I believe we can minimize the impacts of all of these challenges, but the only way to eliminate them completely will be bringing people back together in the workplace as soon as it is safe to do so.

In the meantime, leaders need to recalibrate expectations where necessary and create achievable goals. As we reassess our business expectations, we need to distill those changes down to the individual level and let our people know what a new vision of success looks like. Now, more than ever, our sales team needs to understand why we ask them to do the things we ask of them. This time of challenge has made us more transparent leaders which in turn has made us better leaders. Our people have a better sense of how important their role is and a better sense of how their performance directly affects the bottom line.

Leaders should also carve out time to play together, regardless of how busy our days have become. Social capital is a catalyst for innovation, so a lack of interaction with colleagues can threaten a company’s outcomes. The best collaboration happens when there is familiarity and enough trust to throw out crazy ideas without concern about how they will be perceived. If the relationships aren’t nurtured, the innovation will suffer as well as the sense of purpose and loyalty.

Another priority for leaders should be encouraging your team to develop strong work-from-home routines. It may seem counterintuitive, but your team will inject much-needed variety into their days when they develop a structured routine. In my case, my work desk is about six feet from where I sleep, so without a deliberate structure of doing different activities in different locations throughout the day, I run the risk of it all running together.

I recommend that my team’s routines include boundaries as well. It is really easy to work well into the night when you never leave the office, and carving out time for respite allows us to bring our best selves back to work the following day.

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?

Yes, giving feedback virtually has an added challenge of not being able to pick up on body language, but I’d argue that the more challenging part of providing virtual feedback is the lack of daily encounters that reinforce the personal relationships that make receiving unfavorable news more palatable. We aren’t able to connect with each other in person as often, which can compromise the strength of our relationships and make difficult conversations feel even more difficult. If you are worried about how your message is going to land with one of your employees, it might be a symptom of the lack of familiarity and affinity we most often develop with one another through physical proximity. Carving out time to focus on the personal is now more important than ever. The challenges we are all facing equalize many of our experiences, giving us a unique opportunity to connect — don’t let it pass you by!

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

My short answer is: don’t do it. Personal connection and trust are pillars for making a remote relationship work. All too often, we don’t perform the courtesy of picking up the phone to show we understand that our feedback warrants a conversation. Maybe your message is a tough one, but at least you are demonstrating consideration for the other person by showing up for the conversation. It is much easier to avoid the awkwardness by hiding behind the keyboard, but you’ll hear me say it time and time again: pick up the phone!

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?

I imagine many groups have already worked through the kinks of collaborating virtually at this point, given that they’ve had no choice but to figure out what works. The real challenge will arise once some people begin going back to the office. Having everybody Zooming in from their home office levels the playing field so no one person is at a disadvantage. As small meetings begin happening in the office, we will need to ask ourselves, how do we maintain a sense of equity with those individuals who are still at home? Great technology is key, but we are also exploring how we can create spaces that keep the experience of the remote teammate a central consideration in the design intent.

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?

When people have the right balance in their life, and they feel connected to their colleagues and leaders, they can band together to find a shared purpose and perform even in less than ideal circumstances. As a leader, taking inventory of how each individual is feeling about these levers and adjusting accordingly is the ticket to maintaining a healthy culture. Throw the challenges you are facing as a leader to the team, allow them to be a part of creating the solutions, and balance the hard work with opportunities to personally connect with one another.

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 am a believer in the value of authenticity and vulnerability. We are our best versions of ourselves when we are real, and we inspire others through our example, so my movement would be around removing the proverbial “filter” on our lives. I try my best to take inventory of when I am contributing to the “hey, look how great my life is”-type content on social media, which I think contributes to feelings of inferiority, insecurity, and inadequacy. When we show the perseverance, the scars, and the rejection that we’ve experienced along the way, on the other hand, we empower and inspire.

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

There is a quote from The Alchemist that reads, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” It begs the question, “What do you REALLY want in life?” We will all be hard-pressed to achieve what hasn’t been clearly defined. Then we simply need to get out of our own way. Success and the road that leads to it can be scary, and so although we might claim to want something, there is often a little bit of self-doubt preventing us from fully committing. If we can truly identify what we want and throw ourselves completely into that desire, then we are positioned to achieve our goals.

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