Maria Rapetskaya of Undefined Creative: “Time management”

In transitioning to remote work, time management can become an issue. For someone not used to working from home, distractions pose a challenge — whether they’re unavoidable like home-schooled kids, or compulsive, like reading the internet. Expecting everyone to manage their time well immediately is unrealistic. As managers, we have to help set expectations and even “personalize” […]

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In transitioning to remote work, time management can become an issue. For someone not used to working from home, distractions pose a challenge — whether they’re unavoidable like home-schooled kids, or compulsive, like reading the internet. Expecting everyone to manage their time well immediately is unrealistic. As managers, we have to help set expectations and even “personalize” deadlines for those struggling the most. For example, my senior artist is great at managing his schedule, so I review his work at my convenience. However, we have one exceptionally talented freelancer who just can’t meet deadlines if left to his own devices. For him I set daily or even hourly goals, removing the opportunity for him to fall too far behind. If I am too busy review his progress, I’ll line up tasks he can work in the meantime it to keep him moving along at a steady pace.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Rapetskaya.

Maria Rapetskaya is the Founder & Creative Director of Undefined Creative (UC), a creative production company that specializes in motion graphics and animation. Working with big brands, networks and agencies, UC creates premium-grade content for broadcast television, digital marketing, social media and live events. Most recently, the company helped the NHL bring back the hockey season by providing over 1,000 animations to play during all post-season games on multiple arena screens in Toronto and Edmonton.

Along with her leadership role, Maria remains hands-on in both design and production, doing what she truly loves on a daily basis. She’s a near-native New Yorker, who lives in Brooklyn, but escapes often with nearly 70 countries under her belt. Maria is dedicated to pro-bono work and volunteering. She speaks and writes about creative entrepreneurship, and mentors young creatives.

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 was born in Leningrad, USSR and turned eleven as my mom and I arrived in Brooklyn. Soon after, we witnessed the collapse of the Eastern block. Overnight, my hometown became history and I was now from “St. Petersburg, Russia” and I learned that nothing is permanent. Along with the experience of immigration, this made me very adaptable to change, influencing my approach to my life and my career.

I wanted to be a professional creative, majoring in animation on a whim. This meant hundreds of hours spent drawing and shooting on 16mm film. Fortunately I took an interest in computers and as a college junior I landed my first freelance gig doing web graphics. I gladly accepted, went home to set up an internet connection… and went online for the first time to see what this “web” and its graphics were like!

When I graduated in 1998, web design was hot, but that path didn’t thrill me. I turned down my first job offer as a well-paid web designer in Atlanta for a temp-to-perm gig at a small design studio outside of NYC that paid a pittance. On day two I was asked if I know Adobe AfterEffects. Of course I said “yes” and then proceeded to learn it that afternoon. Whatever I created was well received, cementing my role at the company and uncovering my passion for motion graphics design.

I learned a lot, but the environment was toxic and within months I moved on to a post-production company. When I got tired of the daily grind, I went freelance. The projects and pay were better, but the unspoken assumption was that creative people “live to create” and thus don’t mind 14-hour days.

There were only two options left: change careers or go on my own. My then-partner was also a designer, and together we became entrepreneurs. With zero business education, we somehow managed to sustain a company for five years, at which point our personal relationship imploded, and so did our partnership.

Ironically, this is when my career took off. Starting from scratch forced me to reflect and rethink my approach to running a company. Undefined Creative (UC) was born in March 2010. My professional relationships blossomed into great projects and I found ways of paying forward the success I enjoy. Or course, there were challenges, taking UC through multiple transformations. Fortunately my comfort with change makes it easy to let go of what isn’t working and adapt to a new direction.

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

I was preparing a talk on the topic of entrepreneurship and personal relationships. I decided to share my “client relationship tree” to illustrate the importance of building connections. I expected interesting links, but through this exercise I saw how all of UC’s clients actually trace back to just two people. Through referrals that led to projects or by creating an opportunity to meet others who made referrals — and in many cases, both — these two individuals helped me build my entire business! In turn, many clients “grew” new branches of this tree, as they switched jobs and made further introductions. Even those clients who found us “cold” did so on basis of portfolio work that inevitably traced back to those initial two people.

I had always put emphasis on positive interaction, and still looking back on the trajectory of my success from a bird’s eye view was eye-opening. Everything is personal relationships. Our ability to collaborate, to be dependable, personable and honest, these things supersede all, even our talent.

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?

I was about 23, at my post-production position, and I got an email with specs for the print portion of a project. It was a forward, and the information was illegible — some questionable shorthand, maybe a few words that got deleted along the way. I rarely got direct emails from clients, so I replied, thinking I was writing back to my boss, with this funny (and profanity-laden) note regarding this jumble of words… and got back a scorching reply from the client side’s top exec advising my boss of the appropriate punishment for my impropriety.

So I walked over to my boss’s office and stood next to him as he read, with my head down, trying to neither laugh or cry. Ours was a very laid back creative environment full of sarcastic native New Yorkers, so from the point of view of our internal culture, I didn’t do anything inappropriate. Of course I apologized, but it was obviously just a dumb rookie mistake. We both had a good chuckle and he emailed them back to say I’ve been properly reprimanded. Needless to say, I’ve been extremely careful to check who’s on the email chain ever since.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Honest communication, fair pay and empathy. This last one goes a long way. No one is intrinsically “your” employee. Each team is made up of living, breathing people with personal lives, challenges, interests and goals. We do not own our employees and we must respect their boundaries.

I remember how frustrating it was when someone else made assumptions of how much overtime in included in my day rate and how late I was willing to stay on a Friday night. My policy is no overtime without consent and extra pay. I go out of my way to accommodate people’s schedules, especially this year with the pandemic upending personal lives. Nothing good comes from a team that’s struggling and unhappy. My approach to meeting client expectations is conveying to my team that happy clients are our common goal. It’s never a top-down decision and it’s not about just me. If the clients are happy, the work keeps coming and we are all gainfully employed. Everyone wins.

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?

From co-founding my first company in 2005, I worked remotely. The decision was driven primarily by necessity. We couldn’t afford rent or major equipment. Everyone was still delivering media on tape and a deck could cost upwards of 30K dollars. I had to convince clients that FTP was the future and digital delivery was way better! Yet, we were reluctant to be transparent about our lack of office space. By 2010 perceptions were slowly changing. Undefined was conceived as a remote-only company and openly so from the start. Our team has ranged in size and somehow our full-timers were always local. Our freelance team however has ranged from Florida to Japan.

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?

The most important thing is trust and many managers, especially owner-managers, have a hard time with this. This idea that standing over people’s heads makes them productive is common, but it’s outdated and untrue. Not everyone will succeed in a remote environment, but we have to start with an “innocent until proved guilty” attitude. When we assume that our hires are trustworthy adults, we give them the necessary room to behave as such. If the underlying vibe in our interaction is that of mistrust, it’s likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I transitioned from being an on-site freelancer to being my own boss, I told my clients I could no longer work from their office. Some were very skeptical. Not being trusted was unpleasant to deal with and didn’t make for a positive experience. Eventually, I simply stopped working with those clients, not because I had actually let them down, but because I grew tired of a lack of trust.

In transitioning to remote work, time management can become an issue. For someone not used to working from home, distractions pose a challenge — whether they’re unavoidable like home-schooled kids, or compulsive, like reading the internet. Expecting everyone to manage their time well immediately is unrealistic. As managers, we have to help set expectations and even “personalize” deadlines for those struggling the most. For example, my senior artist is great at managing his schedule, so I review his work at my convenience. However, we have one exceptionally talented freelancer who just can’t meet deadlines if left to his own devices. For him I set daily or even hourly goals, removing the opportunity for him to fall too far behind. If I am too busy review his progress, I’ll line up tasks he can work in the meantime it to keep him moving along at a steady pace.

The real degree of competency becomes obvious. It’s harder to hide our shortcomings in a remote environment. Anyone who was already struggling in the office will likely struggle more. It’s much easier to spot other people’s problem areas, and it’s easier to spot our own. Working remotely, without the ability to turn my head to ask my coworker a question, I quickly learned that I needed to improve my technical knowledge in every way, from computer maintenance to understanding video compression. Before, I could pop my head into an editor’s room and get an answer on the spot. But now, a question emailed to a friend could go unanswered long after my deadline has passed.

Finding the right amount of independence to give employees can be challenging. I suggest evaluating this at the individual level. Some people will always need more hand-holding and it may take some trial and error to figure out who they are and just how much they need. As per my earlier point, this is not the same as not trusting people to do a good job and put in honest effort. It’s simply recognizing who needs more guidance to succeed. Then, there’s no guarantee that someone who prefers to work independently is actually capable of doing so. We’ve hired artists who were convinced they work well on their own, but what they delivered proved otherwise. I have stopped hiring artists if they resist additional direction and oversight as unnecessary, while this self-assessment doesn’t align with reality.

Personally I find that attention to detail becomes more critical in a remote environment. It’s very noticeable for us now, because for years we were dealing with “traditional” companies. Now literally all of our clients are also remote. After hours of Zoom calls and dozens of emails, even the most attentive of us can lose focus. Despite efficient project management, there’s a danger of important changes and feedback drowning in the noise. Our own quality control process is two sets of eyes reviewing everything that goes out, or at leas one person reviewing twice with some span of time between. Still, we had an incident this summer where we and our client all missed a spelling error. I’m now creating a formal checklist of everything that needs to be confirmed before we deliver and revisiting the process by which our internal notes are shared.

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

A manager’s number one job is to communicate effectively and I can’t stress this enough. Remote offices force us to become better communicators and this means not just getting better at pointing out flaws, but actively seeking out ways to improve. Remote work demands a certain degree of self-reliance, but we must keep creating opportunities for learning. For example, a lack of competency that is amplified by working remotely could be addressed with additional training. If someone turns in sloppier work, they could be distracted by a temporary personal situation or maybe their time in meetings tripled since going remote. The manager’s job is to help them diagnose the cause and work together to find a solution. My lead designer is currently working on a custom schedule because of childcare needs. It’s not a full day, but instead of being stressed, scattered and way less efficient as the result, he works less hours that are far more focused and productive.

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?

Something I personally struggle with is tone. I tend to be direct and speak quickly, which gives my voice a firmness. This sounds efficient or confident to some, and bossy or even intimidating to others. In person I can easily compensate for this with warm expressions and a laid back vibe, but that’s impossible to do remotely. Video calls just make me over-question everything (Am I looking in the right spot? Is it OK to fix my hair? No one is smiling or nodding, is this not going well or are they just also hating this video thing?…) and I wind up uncomfortable and less natural.

It’s helpful to understand how your employees respond to criticism. Without visual cues, we have to pay more attention to “verbal” attitudes: getting defensive, shutting down, avoiding interaction following a conversation or failing to respond as timely. If approaching someone who is sensitive to criticism, I try to do so when I feel relaxed and unhurried. A challenging conversation smack in the middle of a stressful day will not produce good results. I prepare by setting my motivation: to be kind and respectful, to remember their feelings, to remain objective, etc. to help me remain composed. I recall their past responses to avoid whatever didn’t work.

It helps to approach this as an exercise in self-improvement and cultivate the right attitude. Having to adjust our behavior on a day when we are not at our personal best can feel like an imposition on freedom to behave like ourselves, catering to the whims of others who need to learn to x, y, z… insert your personal rant here. This just makes us feel entitled to dole out our comments as well deserved and increases the likelihood of coming across as unnecessarily harsh and insensitive.

Finally, we ourselves have to solicit and listen to feedback. Asking for a constructive evaluation from our peers or even our employees can be very helpful. And we have to observe how we react to criticism — there’s a lot to learn there.

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

Go ahead and write it when the issue is fresh in mind. Just don’t hit send! Reread it later (even 20–30 minutes will make a difference) and edit yourself. Consider how this will read to the recipient. Is there anything that’s not objectively true? Are you making accusations? Is there any personal bias towards this person making its way into your choice of words? This one is particularly hard to answer honestly: how would you feel and react if you got this feedback?

The bulk of your feedback should be fact-based. It’s fine to offer a personal opinion, but it should be stated simply and avoid negativity. For example, reminding someone that the client requested a particular change that wasn’t addressed is one thing. Personally disliking the way it was addressed, and using harsh language to describe your reasons, is another. In such a case, I would acknowledge that the change was made with a thank you. Then I would offer my thoughts on how it can be improved, paying attention to my choice of words. “I think this design can benefit from brighter colors.” is better than “This is awfully drab and looks depressing.”

Some people will respond poorly to criticism, no matter how well-phrased or carefully cushioned. That’s why I believe it’s important to pay attention to our own motivation and intention. If we exert genuine effort to be kind and thoughtful in our feedback, and someone still responds poorly, all we can do is remain patient, professional and kind. It helps me tremendously to recall how early in my own career I responded to criticism with consternation. Usually it had little to do with how the feedback was presented. It came from my lack of confidence and inability to deal with being criticized in general.

Finally, if the issues raised persist over time, at some point we must evaluate if this is the right place and position for this person.

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?

The biggest obstacle in my opinion is resistance to change and evolution. Don’t jump to conclusions and don’t assume that a remote company functions identical to a traditional one. Instead, welcome the learning curve. Workflows will have to adapt, particularly in project management. Communication may have to improve. Be flexible and open! If there’s room for creativity, novel ways of working will emerge. Remote setups can significantly improve both productivity and team satisfaction, if we don’t stifle ideas.

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?

Find a way to recreate the water cooler. Here, we can spend most of our morning kick-off call chatting about weekend plans or recent events. This can happen on very busy day when we really need to get to work, but if interaction is happening organically, I let it. Twenty “lost” minutes are far less harmful than someone feeling slighted, unappreciated or cut off. This doesn’t need to become the norm, but we must remember that a remote environment removes a lot of opportunity for interaction. So encourage it when it happens. Slack too helps us create a culture of interaction with the ability to direct message each other in private.

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. 🙂

Time is our most valuable and useful resource — so find a way to volunteer. The world needs doers who put their time where their mouth is for good causes. I’m a huge fan of professional volunteering since it lets me put I do best into the service of others. If you are reading this, chances are you have a skill that a non-profit organization needs to further their cause. Of course, some prefer to leave our work at the office and volunteer in capacity that has nothing to do with their career. Just find a way contribute to the world you want to live in. There’s endless benefit in helping without renumeration, self-interest or praise.

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

Be careful what you wish for” is one of my most favorite quotes. It forces me to evaluate my goals and desires from multiple angles. We often operate under the assumption that happiness awaits us, if only we accomplish this thing, attain that position, get this project, get away from this person, etc. The list is endless and often reaching one goal immediately creates another set of wishes or problems.

This quote is my reminder that nothing I aspire to will be problem-free and that I need to consider the potential side effects of my decisions. This way, I’m not blindsided when I accomplish my goal. I can better prepare for what achieving it will really be like. It also encourages me to be more mindful of my wishes are in general. Is anxiety over landing a project worthwhile when the satisfaction of landing it will be finite and likely problematic in its own way? Am I overestimating how much happiness something can bring me or in my expectations of what I will gain from an accomplishment? And if I don’t get what I wished for, it reminds me that it was never going to bring me lasting fulfillment anyway!

Thank you for these great insights!

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