Be fully engaged. During video meetings, resist the temptation to multitask. People notice when you turn your head to another screen, look down at your phone, turn off video or type loudly. That kind of behavior can come across as disrespectful, uninterested — even rude. When meeting with my team, I minimize windows on my second screen (unless they’re needed for the conversation) and silence my phone and turn it over. I want to set a good example for my colleagues, so they’re always fully engaged and make great impressions during all meetings (but especially those with clients and critical contacts).
We are 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 Alyssa Gelbard.
Alyssa Gelbard is the Founder & CEO of Point Road Group, a global personal branding firm that helps companies make powerful brand impressions through their people. An expert on personal branding, virtual presence and communications, she is passionate about helping companies think about their brands differently, focusing on how their people come across and impact business.
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?
I’m an accidental entrepreneur — I never really thought about having my own company until I fell into it. Before starting Point Road Group, I held progressive leadership roles in marketing and branding across the sports/entertainment, technology consulting and biomedical research industries. I didn’t realize it at the time, but throughout my career, I sowed the seeds that would grow into my company today. I often found myself doing things beyond the scope of my jobs because I enjoyed helping others succeed. For example, I’ve always loved connecting people, so if someone was interested in a potential client, job or opportunity, I’d introduce them to a colleague or friend who could be helpful. I’m also a natural networker, so I would informally advise business development and sales teams on how to better connect and engage with prospects and clients. I was often hiring and building teams too, leading people to ask me for guidance on how to position and market themselves for their next job.
At some point, when people I didn’t know began approaching me for advice, I decided to hang out a shingle and get paid for what I was doing, still while keeping my full-time job. The business began to grow and I started to build a team. I soon realized that this was the work I most enjoyed and looked forward to every day. After spending some time on business strategy and developing a suite of personal branding services, I flipped the switch to focus on the company full time. That’s the moment I truly stepped into myself professionally.
As our client base grew to include corporate clients and executives globally, our team grew too. While I spend more time managing the business these days, that initial draw — helping others succeed — still drives what I do every day. My long-term love of brands is also what gets me out of bed every day. I’ve always been a bit obsessed with thinking about the impressions that corporate brands make and how, ultimately, they impact business. That passion ties into the work we do as well.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
A story that comes to mind goes back to when I was getting my MBA in marketing from NYU and I interned at the American Hockey League. I had learned that the annual league schedule was created in a very archaic way. I had a simple idea to make the process much more efficient, but initially hesitated to say so because the person overseeing it was such an icon in the sport, had a big personality and barely knew me. I shared my suggestion and convinced him to test it. He was immediately impressed and implemented it for the coming season. I was proud that I spoke up with a suggestion that resulted in modernizing a key operation in a meaningful way. As a result of that experience, when Point Road Group hires summer interns, I always encourage them to share their ideas because you never know what can happen.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This may sound commonplace, but my mantra both personally and professionally is, “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” It’s even an underlying principle driving how we treat our clients at Point Road Group. At every touchpoint we consider if this is how we’d want to be treated.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. 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?
My father was incredibly supportive throughout my career. From the early days, to when I started my company, he’d offer guidance and talk things through without actually telling me what to do. He encouraged me to learn and do things for myself, which translated into every aspect of my life. My father was an attorney (and legal counsel for Point Road Group) and any time I had to sign a contract or review legal documents, he’d hold off on giving me his input until I read them fully — and only then would he discuss them. He wanted to teach me what I should look for and question. You could say he was more for the proverbial teaching me to fish than fishing for me.
Ok wonderful. 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?
When a team is together, proximity creates natural opportunities to bond and connect at a deeper level. That camaraderie contributes to smoother collaboration and real-time communication. Information exchange and feedback can flow freely and quickly when you’re in the same space. The ability to observe nonverbal cues in-person (like facial reactions and body language) also cuts down on miscommunication. It’s also easier to learn from what your colleagues and boss are doing when in the office together, including how they handle unique or challenging situations.
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?
When you’re not in the same space, opportunities for spontaneous engagement all but disappear. Whether it’s taking a quick coffee break, picking up lunch or chatting in the kitchen, these moments spark connection and bonding. It’s a huge challenge to duplicate them virtually. When remote, you can’t just stop by someone’s desk to get their input, discuss a client or show them something. This makes it harder to share information as well as ask for help… and know when to offer it too. You lose the simple visual cues of how others are doing, so challenges of any kind can go unaddressed unless people specifically mention them.
Fantastic. 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.)
- Communicate strategically. Distributed teams don’t have the same opportunities to connect casually as when in the same physical space. Besides building cohesion, casual conversations also serve the purpose of sharing critical information, project progress, requests for help etc. When working remotely, it’s important to proactively keep your team apprised of what’s going on (new strategies, client wins, marketing initiatives). Don’t leave people guessing or assume they know things; this triggers frustration and speculation (especially given all of the uncertainty this past year) and that’s the last thing you want. When the pandemic hit, I was very transparent with my team and increased communication about our business challenges and how we’d to adapt to ensure continuity and success.
- Manage meeting expectations. Leading meetings virtually can be challenging, so plan for it. Distribute a clear agenda beforehand (sometimes with time allotments) and then stick to it. The agenda can help bring things back to focus when people go off topic or spend too much time on one item. At Point Road Group, we maintain a shared folder of running agendas for internal meetings so participants know what to expect and can prepare beforehand. Another thing I recommend, whether or not you officially add it to an agenda, is to build in a few minutes at the beginning of a meeting for casual conversation. This reinforces rapport and sets the tone for session engagement.
- Be fully engaged. During video meetings, resist the temptation to multitask. People notice when you turn your head to another screen, look down at your phone, turn off video or type loudly. That kind of behavior can come across as disrespectful, uninterested — even rude. When meeting with my team, I minimize windows on my second screen (unless they’re needed for the conversation) and silence my phone and turn it over. I want to set a good example for my colleagues, so they’re always fully engaged and make great impressions during all meetings (but especially those with clients and critical contacts).
- Show empathy. Working from home presents unique challenges, so create a supportive culture and check in with team members individually — and then really listen to their responses. Conveying empathy builds trust, and learning what’s happening with your team can help you better manage meeting schedules, deliverables and deadlines. While it’s not always possible, offer flexibility whenever you can — it will yield positive results. The team will perform better, be more engaged and appreciate a boss and company that are supportive. For example, I have an essential colleague with young children attending school remotely. We schedule our weekly check-in when it’s most convenient for her, so she doesn’t have to worry about dividing attention between our meeting and helping her kids with online learning.
- Have a strong video presence. Your team will model your behavior, so pay close attention to video setup, etiquette and attire. The impressions you make on-screen can impact relationships and business. Virtual presence guidance is one of the services we provide, so I’m very attentive to this; we must practice what we preach! My virtual presence is consistent during internal meetings and those with clients. When the camera turns on, my appearance aligns with how I’d look if I walked into a client’s conference room. I also set an appropriate video background and keep the camera at eye level so my team feels like I am talking directly to them.
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’ve always offered flexible work from home schedules, so at the start of the pandemic, everyone already had the essentials in place to adapt to being fully remote. However, like most, we suddenly had multiple people in our households online at the same time. With this, variations in internet bandwidth and service reliability led to instances of weak connections, service disruptions and frustration. We adapted quickly, so when it happens (it still does occasionally), depending on what we’re covering, we either continue and fill the person in later who has connectivity issues or move onto something else until they come back on.
Early on, it also took us a few weeks to establish more efficient communications channels for collaboration and timely messaging. We had planned but not yet converted to Microsoft Teams; the pandemic sped up the implementation timeline. Even though we’re all communicators by nature, it took a while for everyone to embrace Teams and use it daily. Now we can’t remember life before it — collaboration is so much easier!
Let’s zoom in a bit. 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?
Microsoft Teams has been very helpful in replicating some of the benefits of being together in the same space, whether we’re collaborating on a document, hopping on a video meeting or using chat. The tagging feature in particular, where you can flag a colleague’s attention in real time, has been quite helpful in keeping projects moving forward quickly (instead of waiting for someone to open and respond to questions in an email or file attachment). And using Teams for video meetings, always with cameras on, is the next best thing to being in the same room.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
If I could create the perfect system for Point Road Group, I’d cherry pick the best features of the different platforms we use (CRM, email marketing, contracts management, payments, communications etc.) and combine them into one system. A fully integrated “best features” system would improve efficiency, communications and dashboards.
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 absolutely triggered a greater reliance on, and appreciation for, unified communications technology. Although we had been using Microsoft 365 already, as mentioned, we implemented Teams at the start of the pandemic. It’s been critical for our productivity and collaboration ever since. Its mobile application has been a bit of a bonus for us too — everyone can maintain accessibility and connection regardless of where they are, giving them more flexibility.
In terms of our clients, like most, they’re conducting the majority of their business virtually and are plugged into unified communications tools too. In a way, this has benefitted Point Road Group because more companies are reaching out to us to help their teams improve how they present themselves, communicate and lead when working remotely.
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?
The technology that excites me is simply any solution that enables us to integrate processes and reduce manual tasks. While we continue to use multiple platforms for different processes, increasingly, we can integrate and automate tasks. Each time this happens, it makes things easier and improves our efficiency and often effectiveness too.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
While integrated, cloud-based solutions make life easier, my concerns are about information security and platform reliability. You frequently hear stories about data breaches and downed servers. While this has been happening for a while and has always required attention, it necessitates even more vigilance when working remotely.
So far we have discussed communication within a team. 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?
We work with clients globally, and before the pandemic, our engagements were split about 50/50 in person and virtual. Now all client interactions are virtual, and the quick transition went smoothly. In addition, while we used to conduct some remote client meetings by conference call, all are conducted by video now. Everyone welcomes the face-to-face time.
Our client communications have changed a bit too. While we use email for logistics, we’ve moved planning meetings from phone to Zoom. Clients really appreciate the extra opportunities for a more personal connection.
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?
Providing constructive criticism is certainly harder to do when meeting remotely, but not it’s impossible. The key to delivering the feedback effectively is to plan out what to say so you address the issue clearly — meaning, don’t wing it. Setting aside time for conversation (instead of tacking it on to another meeting) is also helpful. Be sure to hold the meeting by video so you can observe facial expressions and body language. How you start the conversation depends on the situation too (like if it’s a new or ongoing issue), but by the end, make sure that the person knows what they’re doing well and what they need to improve on. Be sure they (or both of you together) identify the specific steps needed to improve and what (if anything) you or other team members can do to support them going forward. Keep the conversation clear and specific to affect positive change.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Creating camaraderie virtually requires more intention and effort than when you’re in the same room, where it can just happen naturally by proximity. It’s important to make time for casual conversation, and not just before or after a meeting when team members are focused on work. At Point Road Group, we have a weekly virtual team lunch in which we keep the conversation lighter and share a few laughs. We keep video on, but it’s more casual than business meetings and invites the occasional cameos from partners, kids and pets. Collectively, the hour together helps build rapport and trust. Virtual happy hours, trivia nights, book clubs etc. are great for building camaraderie too. Whatever activity you choose, the point is to set aside time to connect in a relaxed, fun way.
Company branding can also reinforce a sense of internal belonging and cohesion. A few weeks into the pandemic, I sent branded insulated mugs to each team member (along with some branded office supplies). While it’s a simple gesture, giving everyone a bit of swag to sprinkle throughout their home office provides tangible, visual cues that connect them back to the company — and spark team pride. We also send these items to new staff. It brings a smile to new and existing colleagues alike when most of us have our matching tumblers in hand during video meetings — especially the team lunch.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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. 🙂
Wow — inspiring a movement — that is meaty! If I could inspire a movement, I’d want to help people in all walks of life understand that impressions they make really do matter and can impact success throughout their entire professional lives… whether they’re looking for a part time job in high school or are a C-Suite leader seeking a board seat. How you present yourself, what you say and how you communicate really impact what people think about you — and what opportunities come your way at every career stage. I’d want the movement message to be that when you take time and care to make good impressions, others will want to help you succeed. You’ll stand out as someone people want to connect with, promote and help.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Visit our company blog at https://pointroadgroup.com/blog for our latest articles, videos and podcast interviews, many of which touch upon virtual presence and staying connected when working remotely. You can also follow Point Road Group on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/pointroadgroup) or follow me as well https://www.linkedin.com/in/alyssagelbard.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.