Encourage your team. Build their confidence. Remind them that they wouldn’t be in their role with their level of responsibility if you didn’t believe they could do it. We’ve all faced difficult times, and it’s our ability to overcome challenges that help us grow our careers.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Meadows, Senior Vice President at Ubiquity Retirement + Savings.
With 80% of Ubiquity’s employees working remotely across the country prior to the pandemic, Andrew has two decades of experience managing a remote workforce. Andrew is a passionate advocate for retirement savers and the small business community. Headquartered in San Francisco, the team at Ubiquity Retirement + Savings conceptualized a flat-fee retirement plan model for small businesses in 1999 and has been serving this market ever since.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Andrew! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
My love affair with the retirement savings industry started over 19 years ago. Through my first job experience, I worked with such an amazing team and learned about the industry and small businesses by working on all types of plans with Transamerica, BB&T Bank, Manulife and MassMutual.
I quickly fell in love with the rules, and exceptions to those rules, of saving for retirement. I loved working with our clients by creating retirement plan solutions that fit their particular needs.
I entered the industry with the simple mission of helping people retire. My goal was to make retirement savings simpler to understand. I wanted to become an advocate for small businesses and make retirement plans more accessible, so everyone has the opportunity to save for retirement.
For the past 16 years, I’ve held multiple roles at Ubiquity Retirement + Savings (formerly The Online 401(k)). I started in service and implementations which grew into supporting our advisors and payroll partners. There’s so much value in being a provider by having the ability to link everything together. After my time in business development, I looked more inward to Quality Assurance within our client experience which led to eventually leading that team through some incredible highs and not so incredible lows. For the past four years, I’ve taken my love for retirement and our company to lead our Human Resources initiatives by infusing our unique company culture with our already innovative brand.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In 2012, our Founder and CEO Chad Parks approached me and said, “I’d like to film a documentary about the looming retirement crisis in our country. Would you like to go on a 7-week road trip to talk to people across the country about their experiences saving for retirement?” I jumped at the opportunity to create an adventure learning about one of my passions.
We did just that. We created a feature-length documentary about real people who are struggling to save and retirees who are barely making ends meet. Our work can be found here: Broken Eggs: The Looming Retirement Crisis in America.
Creating that film was the most amazing experience. It was the perfect mix of my passions — film production and retirement savings.
With Broken Eggs, we wanted to inspire a dialogue for change in the retirement savings industry. Our country needs to start thinking about the pension crisis and the insolvency of Social Security. In recognizing these issues, we can then start restructuring how we think about and plan for retirement.
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?
In my second role at The Online 401(k), I was a member of our Partnerships team. There were two of us at the time, one of us focusing on advisors while the other worked with our payroll partners. Every quarter, we’d run webinars to help the lead generation efforts of our partners. Our most popular one focused on competing with the big institutions to which our small business partners lost business. We had a friendly competition to see which of us could get more payroll companies or advisors to attend the webinar. I worked extra hard making phone calls and creating email campaigns to ensure we had the most participants ever. I certainly won that quarter with almost 500 attendees. I was thrilled.
That next day, our COO called me into her office. I was expecting a huge congratulations. However, I was wrong. You see, our webinar provider charged a hefty fee for webinars exceeding the 100-attendee mark. As it turned out, that one webinar cost us thousands of dollars from my nonexistent budget. That was my first lesson on the bigger part of the business world outside of my role. What could be a win for one team could also result in a challenge for another. There’s always a cost to running a business, and it’s important to weigh all potential outcomes.
What advice would you give to other managers to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
- Nurture a level of empathy. Recognize when your employees are overwhelmed. Let them know that you understand what it feels like to be in charge of projects or tasks that are seemingly worrisome or creeping out of your control. Share your experience from when you were in their shoes.
- Be transparent. Explain why their job is important and why they’ve been entrusted to perform it successfully. For leaders, it is important to let employees know that you have dealt with similar situations. Sharing those challenges or mistakes help you grow as a team and an organization. As managers and leaders, we have an obligation to provide our employees help and guidance.
- Encourage your team. Build their confidence. Remind them that they wouldn’t be in their role with their level of responsibility if you didn’t believe they could do it. We’ve all faced difficult times, and it’s our ability to overcome challenges that help us grow our careers.
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?
The last 10 years have been transformative. While I have managed a few remote employees over the course of my 20-year career, I’ve gained substantially more experience over the last 10 years. In 2010, we opened our first office outside of our headquarters in San Francisco. After we found that the technology supported our vision for more remote work, we started hiring more employees in other areas of the country and offered the flexibility to work remotely. This benefit allowed us to leverage talent across the country rather than being limited to a specific geographic region. I’m very confident when I say we have some of the most innovative minds in retirement located all over the United States.
We continued to respond to the changing times and have developed policies to understand what works best for our company and employees. We’ve always had a clear focus on our mission and values to help support our decisions. One motto we’ve really leaned into is “freedom with accountability.” Our success in maintaining a remote workforce has much to do with portable benefits and creating specific policies on what it means for us to work remotely.
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?
- Create simple rules around working remotely. Having rules that are straightforward and transparent allow us to work together under the same expectations. They also reinforce other values around collaboration and work/life balance. Here are the ones we created:
- Be available.
- Get the job done.
- Reporting is a big part of quality assurance. Make sure you’re using technology that enables you to report on how effective, efficient and productive your teams are. Each company and role is different on how success is measured and having reports that reflect the goals of that role and team will be paramount in helping people know what success looks like.
- Maintain constant communication and transparency. Articulating what success looks like from a leadership perspective is expected and can help encourage transparency from your employees. Additionally, provide your employees with multiple places to share and be heard. We use instant messaging, message boards and “virtual break rooms” to create community when we’re not face-to-face. Virtual break rooms are spontaneous meetings that mimic casual conversation at the water cooler. Imagine walking into the break room and seeing a few colleagues chatting; instead, the conversation is being held in an online chat room. Having these online meeting places gives you an opportunity to jump right in and connect.
- Establish and maintain company rituals. Every Tuesday morning, for example, we have an all hands meeting we call “Vital Factors.” It’s intended to celebrate all the areas where we’re excelling and provide important announcements each week. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, this ritual provides a casual, regular place for our employees to connect and hear from all areas of the business, especially executive leadership.
- Check in with everyone. When we talk about community, it’s important to check in from time to time. The key to being seen isn’t just putting yourself out there, but also to be reached out to just to say hi. Our value of “cultivate joy” is centered around seeing each other and providing an opportunity to connect, laugh and express compassion. Never discount the importance of a quick “Hello, how are you?”
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
- When creating rules or new policies, lean into your company values and mission statement. They’re there to help reinforce where the organization is going while ensuring you’re using common language.
- Make the most of every system you use. For every system that utilizes any input, there is always an output that you can discern. This could be as simple as reporting on tickets or phone systems all the way to more robust reporting that helps understand usage. By understanding the activities of your community, you can impact more thoughtful change.
- Communication is vital, especially from leadership. When appropriate, encourage leaders to speak up and give frank updates, even when the news isn’t celebratory. All employees want to know what’s going on at the company level and how their roles impact the business.
- Company rituals can be as simple as serving donuts for breakfast on Fridays to closing the “office” early after the big quarterly meeting. See what people are connecting over and do more of it or utilize these strategies in different ways.
- In a company of 100 people, it’s challenging for one person or team to reach out to everyone. Empower all leaders to feel a connection to your company’s community and ensure that they are equipped to do just that on the company’s behalf. This could be through a direct message or even through kudos sent out individually, on community boards or at company meetings.
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?
- Be frank. Create a culture where frank, honest communication is the norm.
- Allow freedom with accountability. Give employees the freedom to work from home in a way that makes them successful in completing their responsibilities.
- Play toward people’s strengths. Consider every employee to be a subject matter expert — because they are. Every employee is an expert in certain areas. Allow each employee to flex their strengths.
- Give feedback that allows for immediate action. When an employee is not succeeding, give feedback quickly and regularly. This allows you to gauge improvement and work toward goals together.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Ubiquity as an organization has held a couple of book clubs. We read Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, authored by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler and Stephen R. Covey, which was about how to have those types of conversations effectively.
Here are some tips for conveying constructive feedback over email:
- Be concise. For example, “Hi Joe, I needed this project completed in 2 weeks. It took you 3.5 weeks. Please help me understand the delay. We can’t function efficiently if projects are completed in this manner. Keep up the good work on account X. Let’s continue to work together on time management.”
- Acknowledge their good work and recognize that they are humans who struggle and make mistakes. State the facts without emotion and avoid emotionally-charged words. The person might feel disappointed, but their emotions are less likely to spin out of control when you communicate in a factual manner and provide critical feedback. We can often avoid harsh conversations by creating realistic expectations at the outset. As a leader, you might be frustrated, but ultimately you get more accomplished by maintaining a level head and finding ways to help your team be successful.
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?
- Find ways to share in some fun remotely. We have a sales team that previously worked in the same office together. They would share funny stories in the office about their work experiences to appreciate certain aspects of their jobs. When they transitioned to a remote work environment, this shared time was hard to replicate because there was no longer a common place to gather. While they didn’t have morning chats by the coffee pot anymore, people started to find other ways to build camaraderie. When someone made a sale, they began a tradition of sending a congratulatory, funny cat picture in the team group chat.
- Avoid micromanagement. If you didn’t look over your employees’ shoulders when you were in the office, don’t be a micromanager from afar. Working from home right now is a family affair. Children are home from school and day care. Spouses are adjusting to working from home as well. It is important as leaders to be accountable. When small obstacles do arise, communicate appropriately and be flexible. At Ubiquity, our three rules for working remotely are: ‘Be available. Overcommunicate. Get your job done.’
- Maintain regular communication without micromanaging. Hopefully, your team has tools in place to report productivity without intrusive communication. For example, ongoing group chats are helpful places to check in as it’s often easier to jump into a running conversation.
- Use an employee engagement tool that automates feedback and check ins. Through that review process, we have a set agenda for every one-on-one to streamline progress checkpoints and goal setting. We use a system where employees are able to give each other virtual high-fives, share your mood with your manager each week and even talk about workload. Knowing how each person feels about themselves and their role is key in helping overcome otherwise unseen obstacles.
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?
- Empower people to have a voice. How are you creating those opportunities for your employees’ voices to be heard? Create an environment where all members of the team feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and opinions.
- It is healthy to acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses. This acknowledgement recognizes that we are humans. Give people an opportunity to vent. Allowing them to do so will clear the way for them to do their job effectively. When people speak up, validate them so they don’t feel alone.
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. 🙂
As family, friends, and communities, we don’t talk enough about finance especially in communities who are struggling. It’s important to talk about our finances. People often ask me to look at their 401(k) plans or talk through a budget — that’s great! We should be using each other as resources to share our financial knowledge. Tap parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. There are so many people around you who are capable and eager to help you learn about managing your finances.
Too often, people feel like they are not saving or investing enough. If I could inspire one movement, I would take the taboo away from finance, so people would feel comfortable learning from each other and asking questions about matters they don’t understand.
The financial industry uses so much jargon. We need to start talking in regular language, so the average person can understand.
When people think of retirement, they tend to think of older people at the end of their lives. When I think about retirement, I think about young people, the people who have the greatest ability to influence their futures. We need to talk with them about saving and give them the tools they need to succeed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Daring leadership is ultimately about serving other people, not ourselves. That’s why we choose courage.” — Brene Brown
I’ve always worked in the service industry, and it’s helped me be the leader that I am. While I have been empowered to make decisions about my career, I always filter through those decisions understanding how it will be of service and value to others. That service has helped me become quite brave. If I’m doing it for myself, it feels very self-serving; if I’m doing it for others, I’m helping others who need my support.
Thank you for these great insights!