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“5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team” With April White

It’s tempting to feel that employees are not working if they aren’t in front of you, but give them the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. This will ensure you get off on the right foot and pave the road for the team to find its productive footing. As a part of our […]

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It’s tempting to feel that employees are not working if they aren’t in front of you, but give them the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. This will ensure you get off on the right foot and pave the road for the team to find its productive footing.

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

A seasoned communications specialist and writer with both B2B and B2C experience, April is as creative as she is strategic. With over 19 years of experience representing Fortune 100 companies and their executives at leading public relations agencies including Weber Shandwick, Edelman, Spong and Rubenstein Public Relations, she is skilled at developing integrated communications programs that convey strategic messaging, compelling narratives, intangible brand attributes and subtle points of differentiation.

April has experience not only with blue chip brands including MasterCard Worldwide, Sotheby’s International Realty, MetLife International, Sealed Air Corporation, and Dannon, but also with startups including NEXT Trucking, Softomotive, Suzy, Picnic Tax and Basis Vectors. The former award-winning journalist started her own company in 2013 and coined the term “Trust Relations” in 2018, which led to the creation of the boutique communications agency Trust Relations.

April received her B.A. in Journalism and Mass Communications from Iowa State University and continued studying integrated communications at Columbia University’s master’s program in Strategic Communications in New York City.

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 started out as a journalist, because I knew early on the one thing I wanted to do every day for the rest of my life was write. My first job out of college was as a reporter for The Des Moines Register in Iowa, where I grew up. But I quickly found out that if you do a good job as a journalist and report fairly on an issue, both sides of the story will dislike what you wrote — and possibly not like you. As a lifelong people pleaser, I realized within two years that I would be better off in public relations, where I could advocate for one side of a story.

I went to “the dark side” as my reporter colleagues called it, and was much happier in public relations. I made my way from Two Rivers Marketing in Des Moines to the New York City satellite office of Carmichael Lynch Spong (now Carmichael Lynch Relate), and later worked for Weber Shandwick, Edelman and Rubenstein PR in New York. My last job before I branched out on my own was as the Manager of PR & Communications at eMusic.

In 2014, I took the scary step I had dreamed of for many years and began freelancing. I moved to Los Angeles, where the cost of living was less daunting than New York City, and applied what I had learned outside the safety of a large agency or company. After years of finding my way as a solo practitioner, what began as “April White Communications” blossomed in early 2019 into a legitimate virtual agency, Trust Relations.

This coincided with me coining the term “Trust Relations,” which I believe is a more accurate reflection of what the practice is — and should be — today. I don’t believe public relations, in its traditional form, is relevant anymore. Spinning the story and staging stunts is a thing of the past. Today’s audiences are savvy, discerning and connected via countless platforms, and they quickly disregard anything that’s not based in truth and reality. You might be able to trick the public for a while, but it’s just a matter of time before the truth emerges, so it’s much better to get the core offering to be authentic and valuable, and then let that value resonate out in narrative form.

At Trust Relations, we specialize in helping brands show who they are, what they do, what core values they represent and how they make the world a better place. We dream up stories and creative activations as well as sponsorships and partnerships that not only embody and reinforce the brand’s identity, but also empower them to form meaningful connections with their target audiences.

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

I began my career as a reporter at The Des Moines Register and found myself covering a very intense story that made national news. A hospital CEO in Perry, Iowa left her 7-month-old daughter in her minivan one day, when she was distracted and running late for work. Temperatures were near 90 degrees that day and the baby died from overheating.

I had to interview her, her family and everyone she knew who would speak with me. Although exciting at moments, I found the entire process to be heartbreaking and torturous.

Covering this story made me acutely aware that, while I loved to write, being a reporter was not a great fit for someone as empathetic as me.

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?

Most of my early mistakes were not funny. But when I first moved to New York City from Iowa and was working in the satellite office of Carmichael Lynch Spong (now Carmichael Lynch Relate), I was watching a lot of “What Not to Wear” on TLC in an attempt to figure out how fashionable New Yorkers dress. I knew I had to “dress the part” in front of clients as part of the job.

One day we had clients coming into the office and I pulled out all the stops (or so I thought) and put on a pink Ann Taylor Loft skirt and black top — with pantyhose. Apparently I had not learned from Stacy London, Clinton Kelly, Tim Gunn or Heidi Klum that pantyhose were “out.” One of my sweet colleagues, who was also originally from the Midwest, pulled me aside to let me know that I shouldn’t be wearing pantyhose and needed to take them off before the client arrived. I was dumbfounded. Then what would I put on my legs? “Nothing,” she said. “Just go with bare legs.”

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

Play to employees’ strengths and work with them on developing a career path that matches their personal interests, as much as possible. Yes, this could lead them to discovering that they aren’t the best fit for your organization in the long run. Or it might mean that you will need to hire someone else for the job you originally had in mind for them to grow into someday. But it also ensures that they feel empowered to contribute in a way that best features their gifts and leans into their natural interests. It also leads to loyalty among employees who feel that you have their best interest in mind — in addition to the company’s, of course — and helps prevent burnout. When employees are doing what they really love, they can work long hours without even noticing. On the other hand, if you push them into trying to be well-rounded in a way that doesn’t truly interest them, they can burn out quickly even if they are only working 40 hours per week.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. 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 five main challenges of managing a remote team are:

  1. Establishing a strong culture and sense of camaraderie
  2. Managing scheduling conflicts when people work in multiple time zones and/or at different times of the day
  3. Tracking employee performance and productivity
  4. Motivating employees who are more externally than internally motivated
  5. Addressing IT, technology or computer-related issues

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

Establishing a strong culture and sense of camaraderie

It’s more important than ever when managing a remote team to have a clear vision for the company’s culture and values. You can’t rely on an office setting or dress code to help convey the “vibe,” so it all has to be clearly defined in writing, communicated in multiple ways, and demonstrated consistently.

We have plenty of Slack banter, phone calls and video calls that help establish that sense of camaraderie and teamwork. We also hold biweekly all-agency meetings and biweekly brainstorms that everyone is encouraged to attend, which allows us all to interface and see one another even when we may not work on the same accounts. This gives everyone a way to unite and feel like they’re part of a bigger mission.

Managing scheduling conflicts when people work in multiple time zones and/or at different times of the day

It’s ideal to have at least four to six hours during the day where everyone is actively working. When you have a team that stretches from the East to the West Coast of the United States, that tends to be 9 am PT/12 pm ET to 3 pm PT/6 pm ET.

I also ensure all company-wide meetings are scheduled for the middle of that overlapping time, at noon PT/3 pm ET.

If everyone — or at least the management team — remains available to answer occasional emails and Slack messages outside of their “normal” work hours, that helps immensely to ensure everyone can get their work done on time — even the San Francisco-based night owls.

Tracking employee performance and productivity

There are great project management tools out there like Asana, Monday and Teamwork that help you quickly keep tabs on where projects stand and who has completed which task.

These tools work especially well for larger, slower moving projects with clearly defined tasks. They are less foolproof when it comes to ongoing work with many moving parts, urgent tasks that arise during the day and need to be handled quickly, the review of others’ work, proactive work that could be done without it being assigned, and responses to client emails (or the lack thereof).

I ask junior employees who are reporting to multiple managers to Slack their top priorities for the day each morning to a channel seen by all of their managers. This helps us all know what that employee is working on for the day and also provides a platform for any manager to chime in if we need to collectively discuss and agree upon reprioritizing his or her tasks.

I also ask junior and middle management employees to send a recap every Monday morning with the accomplishments of the prior week for each account and the top priorities for the week for each account, along with any proactive or creative ideas they may have for that client to keep things moving.

Motivating employees who are more externally than internally motivated

This is more difficult to address than the challenges outlined above. The truth is, employees who are primarily motivated by being around others or the fear of a scary manager looking over their shoulder might not be a great fit for a remote team.

The amount of micromanaging required via Slack, email or video calls to simulate that kind of in-person oversight is likely too burdensome and time consuming for managers — and possibly too irritating for employees — to actually be effective.

That said, I have heard of managers who hold two all-agency check-ins every day: one first thing in the morning and another in the middle of the day, during which employees report to them what they have been doing and invite them to ask questions. If this is effective in both motivating and keeping employees, (and managers have time to do this), I applaud them for trying this approach. I personally cannot imagine doing that and would rather find and attract self-motivated employees who are always looking to outperform and overdeliver without prodding.

Addressing IT, technology or computer-related issues

When an employee’s internet is down, their power is out, their computer is having issues, or their laptop is stolen while camping, it’s not always just a simple phone call or email to IT. They have to send screenshots back and forth, wait for remote IT help, or lose a morning (or possibly days) of productivity while they attempt to follow self-help tips on tech blogs.

If employees have hot spots they can use for backup internet service and a second computer (and possibly even a generator, if they are homeowners), that is ideal. Then they can ensure that even if things go sideways, technologically speaking, they can continue working during critical hours and be on important client calls — and wait for remote IT help or at least a break in the action to fix these issues.

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?

Keeping an open line of communication and friendly dialogue going with employees via Slack, the phone, text and video calls is key. If you can provide real-time feedback when performance blips occur, it can help prevent minor performance issues from turning into unscalable mountains — or truly uncomfortable video conference calls. This also ensures that you have the rapport necessary to have those candid conversations in real time, when necessary, and can do so while sitting on the same side of the virtual table — just as Brene Brown recommends doing, in her book “Dare to Lead,” when you’re in the same room.

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

First and foremost, never write an email like that when you are upset or irritated. No matter how well you write, it will come through in your tone and the words will be stained with that sour energy even if you perfect them all and proof it 10 times. I know. I’ve done it.

Put yourself in the employee’s position and imagine how you would want to receive the feedback. If you can have empathy for him or her and maybe remember similar mistakes you made at that age, you’ll be more likely to show how much you truly care while simultaneously setting boundaries and/or explaining the blueprint of what’s expected of them. I have found that once I no longer feel frustrated with an employee, or as if I need him or her to behave or perform better to make my life easier, then I can more calmly and impersonally explain where there is a problem. Only then can I clearly outline, in a caring way, the discrepancy or incompatibility between what I know they want to achieve and their performance, or between the role they are in now and the title I know they want.

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?

Because we began as a virtual agency and have not had to make this transition, I am less qualified to answer this question. However, I would encourage teams who have been suddenly forced into a remote workforce to be patient with each other and lead with trust.

It’s tempting to feel that employees are not working if they aren’t in front of you, but give them the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. This will ensure you get off on the right foot and pave the road for the team to find its productive footing.

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?

To reinforce our agency’s values and culture, one of the things we do during our all-agency meeting is hold optional guided meditations at the end, for those who can (and want to) stay on.

We kick off the meeting by asking a fun personal question of an employee each time (e.g. What was your favorite band 10 years ago?), so everyone gets to know each other on a personal level a little better each time. Then I give a shout out to someone who has done an amazing job in the past two weeks and share any significant company news that provides an overview of what we have in process, as a company, and helps people feel “in the know” about the big picture.

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. 🙂

The idea of Trust Relations, the term I coined and after which I named our agency, comes from the idea that a company’s stories should stem from its essence — not spin. In other words, a brand that is authentically doing interesting things and making the world a better place for its target audiences will emanate that truth outward in everything it does. This makes the storytelling organic and more powerful, and ensures the company has an impact on the world around it as well as loyal customers.

Within this idea is a greater truth: If we, as individuals, become what we want the external to reflect, then we can help imprint that reality on the world around us and attract likeminded people to us. This is how individuals can truly make a difference in their families, in their communities, in their companies, in their nations, and in the world.

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

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

This quote is the underlying essence of Trust Relations, as public relations has relied on spell casting and tricking audiences into believing truths (or untruths) for far too long. As an intended replacement for public relations that I coined in 2018, Trust Relations is meant to embody the importance of this concept on a brand level. In other words, it means “brands must be the change they wish to see in the world.”

I fundamentally believe that if we don’t appreciate or endorse how someone, a community, an industry or a nation is functioning or behaving, our job is not to sit back and angrily complain. Our job is not to criticize, dehumanize, devalue or deface. Rather, our job is to change what we can: Ourselves or our circumstances. If this can extend to creating a company that attempts to fix what we see is wrong in the industry or world, fantastic. That’s what I’m trying to do with myself, and that’s also what I’m trying to do with Trust Relations.

Thank you for these great insights!

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