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Andrew O’Shaughnessy of Poppulo: “You will be no use to the business if you get burnt out”

Sensitive or difficult feedback should never be given in written form, because even with the best of intentions words can be misinterpreted. You should always try to create a feedback environment that is as close as you can get to a real face-to-face, and thankfully we now have that with several options like Zoom, Google […]

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Sensitive or difficult feedback should never be given in written form, because even with the best of intentions words can be misinterpreted. You should always try to create a feedback environment that is as close as you can get to a real face-to-face, and thankfully we now have that with several options like Zoom, Google Meets and etc. It’s not as good as the real thing, obviously, and you still have to remember that the person at the other end might miss the nuances and body language they usually pick up in a face-to-face conversation.


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 O’Shaughnessy.

Andrew is an innovator with a passionate belief in the power of communications to transform how people work. He founded Poppulo with a vision to radically change how companies engage with their people, and today Poppulo is the employee communications platform of choice for leading global organizations.

Over 900 companies in more than 100 countries communicate with over 25 million employees every day through Poppulo. Last year, Andrew was shortlisted for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2020, and Poppulo has been awarded a Top 10 rating in the Great Places to Work for the past five years.


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 background is in computer science and mathematics and I have pioneered innovation and development in the IT sector in Ireland since the mid-1990s. As an entrepreneur I’ve always had a passionate belief in the power of communications to transform how people work.

This has been ingrained in me since I was a young graduate in the 1980s and about to take over my family’s textile business, which had for decades been amazingly successful, exporting globally and supplying fabric to the great fashion capitals and haute couture houses of the world, including Channel, Gucci and Yves St Laurent.

But, just as I was about to take over, the company closed down, due to a combination of factors, one of which was the closed culture that existed, where there was a disconnect between employees and management.

It was very old-school: management told employees what to do and that’s what they did. There wasn’t a culture of collaboration that could have enabled more adaptability to meet the challenges of the time: recession and cheaper imports. Good people lost their jobs and a great company that produced world-class products shuttered.

That hard lesson lit a drive inside me to one day build a company of my own that would be a global leader with a great culture based on strong values and open, honest two-way communication.

I founded Newsweaver, which in its early years was an Email Marketing company, but in 2012 we pivoted to employee communications when I saw an opportunity to become a global leader in this emerging market.

In 2017, Newsweaver evolved to Poppulo, derived from the Latin for ‘people’, reflecting our belief that the success of any company depends on its people: how it inspires, engages, and connects with them, to create a great employee experience and a great place to work. Every year since then we’ve ranked in the Top 10 Great Places to Work and have been awarded special recognition for listening to our employees.

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

One of the most interesting stories goes back to 2012 when we were Newsweaver and our business was Email Marketing. The market was saturated and I was looking for an opportunity to pivot into a sector where we could become a global leader, but we weren’t sure what that was. We were looking at all sorts of possibilities all around us, looking everywhere to see what opportunities might be there, not knowing all the while that the answer was actually there all the time directly under our nose!

What we hadn’t known was that 10% of our customers were using our email marketing software for their employee communications — we weren’t even aware of it.

So, after having looked at potential new products, new geographies, new business models — all sorts of big things, we realized when we got close enough to our customers we discovered a use case that opened the opportunity we had been searching for all along.

When we discovered this we looked into it more, we did our research and realized the importance of internal comms and how it impacts the bottom line for organizations, so it had to be big some day. We could also see that nobody else was focusing on this space, so we went for it.

So I bet the future of the company and made the pivot from email marketing with the ambition of becoming the global leader in employee comms, and here we are today, partnering with an amazing A-list of the world’s best companies, who use Poppulo to communicate with 25 million employees every day!

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?

This isn’t a laugh-out-loud funny mistake, and indeed no mistake is funny, but looking back at it now I can smile and it certainly involves an error in terms of timing, which is critical in business.

In 1996 I founded a start-up in Ireland called e-search. Although I couldn’t have known it at the time, it was in effect a forerunner to LinkedIn, which was founded seven years later by Reid Hoffman.

E-search enabled your profile to be searched and found by Name, Job, University, School etc registrants also entered their areas of interest and allowed for permission-based advertising that the recipient controlled. No site world-wide provided this at the time in 1996, when I had 100,000 subscribers in Ireland and was gearing up to scale globally..

The mistake was timing, a combination of E-search being ahead of its time, being too early to get the funding needed to scale because of this, and being torpedoed by a dotcom bust in 2001, which killed off routes to finance.

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

To thrive from a health point of view in business and avoid burnout is analogous to when you go on an airplane and you’re told to put on your oxygen mask first before you tend to others. Business leaders need to keep top of mind for themselves and their employees, that if you are burnt out you are no good to anyone, not to yourself, not to your family and not to your company. All of those interactions depend on you. So put your own mask on first.

Keep that in mind: you have to be well. Leaders need to understand this and employees in turn need to have it demonstrated to them that their leaders understand it in relation to them.

Whether you are a leader or an employee, it’s imperative to always remember that your own health and wellbeing comes first. Because you’ve got to realize that if meeting deadlines and targets drives you to burnout, at best you will be less efficient and effective, and at worst you might have to take extended leave.

You will be no use to the business if you get burnt out.

The business needs you to NOT get burnt out, your family needs you to NOT get burnt out.

You owe it to yourself, you owe it to everybody to put your own health first.

And if a business leader or manager doesn’t appreciate that, they will drive their people to hit their results but they’ll get less efficiency out of them in the long run, and they won’t be around when they need them. Business is a marathon, not a sprint.

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?

Poppulo always had an element of remote working but most staff were based in our offices in Cork, Ireland, and Boston, Massachusetts.

When the pandemic struck in March 2020 we went 100% remote overnight at our HQ in Cork, Ireland and shortly afterwards in our Boston office.

But ever since we opened the Boston office seven years ago, I consider our colleagues there to be a remote team. Not a separate team, just one that happens to work remotely from colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic.

We were very conscious of that from the start. At the time, I’m sure people were sick and tired of me going on repeatedly about how we’re one team. One company with two different locations, but one team. We never thought ‘they’re the US team and they do their thing and we do ours and we add the numbers together in the end”. They were always a remote team and we went to great lengths to ensure they were integrated with the team in Ireland. People were flown over to meet all their colleagues when they joined, flown in for Christmas events and our annual get-together when we were smaller.

In addition to the Boston office, for several years now we’ve had a small number of individual employees working remotely in different countries.

But just as for most companies in the world, the big change came with the pandemic last March. We had put together a detailed plan around this in preceding weeks. As a tech company, and especially one that’s a global leader in employee communications, we were better equipped to achieve this than many others. We placed a big emphasis on ensuring our people had everything they needed to switch to remote working and the support networks that we knew would be essential. Remember, this was a scary time, full of uncertainty for everybody, so we placed particular weight on frequent and consistent communication, including regular video updates from myself and other members of the leadership team.

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?

Challenge 1 — Drive performance: Keeping their team aligned, focused & informed

Regardless of the nature of work, keeping teams aligned and focused on the most urgent work and priorities is a continual challenge for Leaders. Without alignment, silos within teams are created and performance is affected as team members move forward in different directions. Keeping teams aligned, focused and informed is easier when teams are sitting together, listening to each other and regularly updating each other on their focus areas. While working remotely, the opportunity for team members to come together to discuss priorities, objectives, progress to goals and challenges becomes a small window of time often in a virtual meeting.

Example:

As a Senior Executive team, each of my team members are pushing forward to deliver our strategy within their functions. Alignment across these functions starts within my team. I was very aware that prior to a shift to remote working, there was an un-structured yet important channel of communication, around progress to key projects/work that happened organically across the business. These are the corridor updates, watercooler moments that keeps a broader group updated and complements our official comms channels. Remote working eliminated this important opportunity to keep people aligned.

Challenge 2 — Maintain Culture: Ensuring Behaviours continue to match company values

As Peter Drucker famously said “Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast”. With the sudden shift to remote working, the focus on Performance should not allow us to overlook the potential impact on Company Culture. If behaviours across teams begin to shift too far away from what has been defined as key Company Values, it can be very difficult to salvage the culture, having far reaching impacts to the overall Company Success.

Example:

Healthy Behaviours around Collaboration and Supporting coworkers is a common theme seen and defined in many Company Values. But with remote working, our opportunity to overlap with coworkers has reduced. While we are each under more pressure juggling home, work and personal lives the rule of out-of-sight out-of-mind comes into play. So how do leaders nurture key behaviours that underpin a culture?

Challenge: 3 — Support wellness: Setting the pace to avoid burnout

Wellness and Performance dovetail to create effective and sustainable teams. Both need to be an ongoing focus for leaders of remote teams. Besides the common sense association between the two, the ethical and moral element of supporting wellness should underpin any Company Culture or that Culture will be seen as artificial.

Example

The challenge with managing remote teams is that often leaders recognise the early signs and symptoms of stress, exhaustion and unhappiness in their teams by observing body-language, having the time and space to openly talk about challenges or noticing how team members are interacting with each other. With remote working, leaders have very little time or opportunity to proactively “monitor” wellness in-person. Meaning that individual employee wellness may have declined to a dangerous level before the warning signs appear in a remote environment.

Challenge 4 — Maintain connection: Creating & protecting that sense of belonging

While working remotely, whether at home or in a co-working space, it is difficult to maintain that connection to your team and your company. A connection is often an emotional sense of belonging that you have by sharing experiences and time with other people. With remote working, shared experiences are rare and often virtual. So why does this matter to Leaders who are managing remote teams? If there is no connection or sense of belonging across your team, the level of engagement and commitment to the team’s effort will be capped. High performance teams operate like a tribe where team member’s sync and compliment each other.

Example

The onboarding of new employees is a critical time period for the creation of a Connection between the new employee and the Organisation and building that sense of Belonging. Hiring and Onboarding is an ongoing focus for Leaders as they manage remote teams and unfortunately you only get one chance to get it right. While teams are onsite, Leaders can offer those “magic moments” in the employee onboarding experience, whether those moments are team welcomes, introductions to the CEO, gifts or sharing experiences. When teams are together, these onboarding experiences are easier to deliver and can be more authentic versus for remote onboarding where to deliver the same experience — the onboarding must be coordinated and timed like an orchestra performance. This takes planning and work.

Challenge 5 — Driving collaboration: Building and nurturing relationships

A team is a group of people who come together to do great work. But each person is unique, with a unique personality and varying needs and wants. So how do we work together effectively and avoid chaos and unnecessary conflict? This is where Relationship Building and Nurturing becomes such an important piece of building high performance teams. In fact the ability to create sustainable relations with co-workers is a key competency of top performers. So can leaders who are managing remote teams ensure that relationships within the teams are being built and nurtured?

Example:

If any of us were to take the time to reflect on the strongest relationships we have within our teams or across the organisation that we work within AND how we built and nurtured these relationships, we would quickly realise that it wasn’t any one event or shared experience that created that relationship, it was a series of often non-significant events that were the foundation of that relationship. The challenge here is that Remote working has removed or reduced the opportunity for these non-significant events where our calendars are scheduled and agenda-led. The impact of a good relationship with a coworker, means that there is TRUST in that relationship where both parties feel supported and where communication can be open and honest. There is a strong link between TRUST in teams, innovation and high performance.

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

Solution to Challenge 1 — Drive performance: Keeping their team aligned, focused & informed:

Create a new channel for these updates.. For example, once a week we send an email called The Loop with video updates from across the business on what their focus, progress and challenges are. Our teams get to hear and see their peers share their updates. The outcome is that it has brought greater alignment, focus and the feedback is that our People have felt well informed.

Solution to Challenge 2 — Maintain culture: Ensuring behaviours continue to match Company Values:

As always, It comes back to communication and ensuring there are multiple channels to reinforce Why Cultures and Values matter. Once you have effective Communication channels, you can deliver valuable, targeted and timely content supporting healthy behaviours and approaches while working remotely. Or even better, use those channels to encourage peer-to-peer recognition, case-studies and videos where cultural leadership can be demonstrated in a sincere and authentic way. This will ensure that your Culture is kept alive and all your people know what is expected of them.

Solution to Challenge 3 — Support wellness: Setting the pace to avoid burnout

The Solution to supporting wellness in remote teams is for leaders to talk about Wellness and stress the importance of employees looking after themselves and each other. The challenge around Wellness and in particular burnout and mental health is that there is a stigma associated with this type of ill-health. Countering and calling out this stigma can be very powerful. In Poppulo we used our Communication channels to share videos of our leaders talking about Wellness and Burnout. What we found effective was for our leaders to share their personal experiences and challenges on

Solution to Challenge 4 — Maintain connection: Creating & protecting that sense of belonging

Creating connection and a sense of belonging involves communication. Imagine you arrived at a party and didn’t know any of the guests. How would you begin to feel welcomed, included and comfortable? For most of us, that would involve being communicated to in a sincere, welcoming and personal manner. If the other guests were expecting our arrival, knew our name and why we were there before we walked in the door so they could welcome us personally — imagine how that experience would be different. If the host announced our arrival and made personal introductions, imagine how that would feel? This is what belonging looks like and how communication channels can support that authentic sense of belonging by delivering the right content at the right time, particularly supporting key stages of your employee experience while working remotely.

Solution to Challenge 5 — Driving collaboration: Building and nurturing relationships

So how can leaders create remote environments for positive collaboration where strong relationships can be built and nurtured? As always, leaders need to lead by example. Start with time:

Are your team coming together daily for a standup meeting? This creates a safe, less structured meeting environment for collaboration and communication

Do you set-aside time for virtual team lunches/fun events? Although many of us are tired of sitting in front of screens, doing this once a month keeps people connected?

Do you make time within your 1–2–1 meetings to checkin and catch-up with your team members on how they are doing and how you can support them? You taking the time sincerely building relationships will be mirrored within your teams

Lastly, although we like to work hard, we always make time to have fun and enjoy working together. This really matters.

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?

  1. Firstly, sensitive or difficult feedback should never be given in written form, because even with the best of intentions words can be misinterpreted. You should always try to create a feedback environment that is as close as you can get to a real face-to-face, and thankfully we now have that with several options like Zoom, Google Meets and etc. It’s not as good as the real thing, obviously, and you still have to remember that the person at the other end might miss the nuances and body language they usually pick up in a face-to-face conversation.
  2. Always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and ensure you give them the space to put their views across to address the feedback you’re giving them, especially if they’re getting criticism they might not expect and haven’t heard before.
  3. Be empathetic. There might be work-related or personal issues that you’re not aware of — for example, many people have had mental wellbeing issues bubbling under the surface while working remotely during Covid, which might have impacted their work performance. Provide the environment for issues like that to surface so that they can be discussed and addressed.
  4. Constructive criticism for remote workers should be formulated the same way as for those who are not remote: first outline what the employee does or has done well, followed by pointing out areas for improvement and how this can be achieved, ending with encouragement to influence future performance.

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

My position on this is very simple: you don’t give constructive feedback — which inherently involves criticism — in writing, whether it’s by letter or text or, in answer to this question, email. Period.

No matter how carefully you are with the words you write you cannot express tone in an email. You cannot control the tone that the person receiving the email will apply to it, and the very real risk is that tone could be a misinterpretation of what you actually meant to get across.

Why would you ever need to give this type of feedback when you have the option of doing it ideally face-to-face, or by video calls, and even by phone, where you can convey tone with far greater clarity and with much less risk of misinterpretation?

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?

As I mentioned in answer to Question 5, while we have long experience of having employees working remotely, most of us in Poppulo worked together on location in our offices until last March.

One of the biggest challenges, or obstacles, was as unanticipated as it is unwelcome, though we’re far from alone in this experience. I refer to the fact that whereas previously, in an office setting, lots of interaction could be spontaneous and dynamic, from a two-minute conversation in the corridor, to a desk-stop update en route to the coffee dock, every interaction now has to be scheduled. For those quick interactions you had before, you now have to book meetings for everything.

So everybody’s diaries are booked up, with endless video meetings from morning to evening. It’s the same for everybody and one of the biggest problems with it is finding the time for ‘headspace’, the time to stop and think.

The lesson we’ve learned here is that you have to make an effort to consciously block out time for this and make that happen every day, you’ve got to proactively diary in free space, because if you don’t do it you will have none left.

Meeting overload will overload the time you need to think.

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?

There’s no doubt that even organizations with a healthy and empowering culture have struggled, to varying degrees, to maintain it since the sudden Covid’s workplace rupture. Take ourselves in Poppulo, for example. We pride ourselves in having a great culture, with lots of transparency and where innovation and creativity flourishes. We’ve had Top Ten ranking in the Great Places to Work every year since 2015, with special recognition for listening to our people. But since we went fully remote, we’ve had to battle very hard to ensure that culture doesn’t erode when people are working from home and trying to juggle all the demands that go with that, kids, home-schooling, caring for parents etc.

It’s very easy for people working out of a bedroom or kitchen table to feel isolated from their colleagues who they don’t meet anymore apart from maybe a small number of their own team, and never the people from other departments that they would have met at the watercooler or in the office corridor.

In many ways it’s easier for people to slip into disconnectedness from the company and its culture in these circumstances than it is for them to continue feeling a sense of belonging and attachment. And that is very dangerous territory.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, our endeavours to maintain our culture have been anchored in communication and open, honest and authentic leadership. I’m not saying this because of the business we’re in, but over the past year we’ve found out ourselves how absolutely critical communication not only for the effective functioning of the company, but in keeping people connected and feeling part of the Poppulo community.

Within days of going fully remote working we had built a suite of communication initiatives to support our people, from Wellness programs and regular one-to-one check ins with our People Operations department, to free Yoga and Meditation classes, online Quiz nights, virtual lunch and coffee meetings.

We introduced a daily newsletter called the Daily Buzz, which covered everything from important business updates to introduction to new hires, and recognition of special achievements.

And every Thursday I do a video update on where the business is at, milestones we’ve achieved and whatever else needs to be said to keep people aligned, connected and motivated at a difficult time.

If I had one overriding piece of advice for other companies is to do everything you can to facilitate and encourage constant two-way communication — it doesn’t matter if it’s by email, Zoom, intranet, social media or whatever — between management and your people and listen carefully to what you hear. Listen and heed.

Prior to Covid when 99% of our people were working in offices in Boston and Cork, we had a monthly town hall where I would take questions.

A very positive consequence of the past year is that we’re effectively having a weekly town hall with my video from the CEO and I take questions on every aspect of the business, whether they are submitted in person or anonymously. It’s proved to be one of the very positive things to have emerged in our remote working world and helps to maintain our culture of openness, transparency and authenticity.

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. 🙂

It would be wonderful to inspire a movement that resulted in business leaders and managers focusing as much on the wellbeing and welfare of their people as they do on KPIs.

I believe we all know the impact on our lives as a result of our working relationship with our manager or boss. Research by Korn Ferry showed that during 2018, 76% of US workers said that workplace stress affected their personal relationships.

It’s similar to the saying that your manager has more influence on your health than your doctor does. Workplace stress impacts quality of life and health issues.

For me as an employer, I feel a responsibility where I’m bringing people in to spend a significant part of their lives, that it should be an environment where it’s a healthy place to be and they can thrive.

So that inspirational movement would be the creation of an international norm in workplace standards where managers driving performance and working to KPIs is of course absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. To be a manager, you also have a responsibility to manage the wellbeing of those who report to you.

This should be as important a measurement of a managers job, and their success, as the KPIs that drive the business.

It will not just result in a healthier work environment with better relationships: there are also really strong business benefits as well, in terms of greater resilience whenever stressful situations arise, as well as improved levels of employee retention. It creates a real win-win situation for everybody involved.

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

For me it has to be “the darkest hour is just before dawn”.

No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s running a business or a project you’re doing, or just the way life is, if you have a number of things that are going wrong, that is the critical point and you can either cave in then or you believe that the darkest hour is before dawn and you push on.

Because the negatives, the things going against you, come in cycles, whether it’s in life or in business, or both, and you do get through them. Remembering that the darkest hour is before dawn helps get you through it.

From my own experience, I’ve had many days when three or four or five things have gone wrong, and everything seems bad, but knowing that this will pass, just like the dark before dawn, keeps you going.

I find thinking like that is helpful when everything seems to be dark and going wrong — I know things are going to come around, so do what you can do, keep doing the right things, and the dawn will come again and we’ve made it through!

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