Andy Freed of Virtual: “Remember the human side of things”

Remember the human side of things: You can’t be effective without trust and relationships. Take a moment of each day to build relationships with those around you, even remotely. Leverage technology: Video is an effective way to stay connected. It’s important to see people’s faces. We are living in a new world in which offices are […]

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Remember the human side of things: You can’t be effective without trust and relationships. Take a moment of each day to build relationships with those around you, even remotely.

Leverage technology: Video is an effective way to stay connected. It’s important to see people’s faces.

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 Andy Freed.

As Virtual’s CEO, Andy oversees the company’s client teams, along with the organization’s overall service quality and management practices. Virtual’s clients are making their mark on the world in technology, health care and more. Their clients include organizations that are led by Microsoft, Facebook, Google and many of the leading names in technology. Outside of Virtual, Andy serves on the Board of Trustees of Melrose Wakefield Healthcare and the Harvard Club of Boston. He is a graduate of Harvard University, and he received his master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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 started my career in political campaigns working at the national, statewide and local levels. After learning that I actually needed to pay my student loan money back, I left campaigns and started working in associations. Somewhere along the way, the Internet came about and changed everything. I leaned into my inner geek, becoming a CIO for a statewide health care lobbying organization. I later joined Virtual in 2001 as EVP/COO. It’s been a delight to help the company and our clients grow since then.

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

Anyone my age has seen three seismic events in the landscape: 9/11, the 2007–8 market crash and COVID-19. It’s a great lesson that things can change at any time and you need to be prepared for anything.

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

I have two! Bobby Kennedy once said “It’s the task of young people to lead for a better world. To be dissatisfied and say that we can do better.” As Bruce Springsteen would say, “Maybe I’m not that young anymore, but I still want to lead for a better world.”

I spend every day trying to do better.

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?

Obviously, my Mom and Dad — but beyond them, I’ll go with Senator Paul Tsongas.

My first real job out of college was for Paul Tsongas’ campaign for President. Paul was honest to a fault, always showed humor and he was in the campaign to make the world better. He was a true servant leader, and I was fortunate to have the chance to learn from him.

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?

In a word — collaboration. Creativity and innovation are team sports. Having people together fosters a collaborative spirit. But it’s deeper than that.

One of our company values is ‘Have Fun” and every day I am with my teammates, there are moments of laughter and happiness. That’s an important part of being together.

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?

There’s a reason that isolation is a punishment in prisons. Teams that aren’t together can become isolated from one another — communications can be siloed or misconstrued. When teams aren’t together, it’s critical to double down on communications.

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.)

Here’s my quick “Top 5’:

  1. Remember the human side of things: You can’t be effective without trust and relationships. Take a moment of each day to build relationships with those around you, even remotely.
  2. Establish context: Email has no tone, so be careful to establish context for all communications.
  3. Leverage technology: Video is an effective way to stay connected. It’s important to see people’s faces.
  4. Have empathy: Everyone, from colleagues to clients, is going through something right now.
  5. Repeat: It’s important to over-communicate. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.”

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 have worked hard to roll out laptops and make sure everyone has the right technology to be connected. With a name like “Virtual” we’ve long been supporters of telework, so we had the infrastructure in place.

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?

If you’re starting every day with your camera turned off, you’re not as connected. Now, video is critical. But video is also not the only technology tool that matters right now. Think about file shares. Think about portals where people can collaborate on work.

Certainly, tools like MS Teams and Zoom are great to keep people connected but it goes deeper — people need the ability to access files and truly work remotely — portals and web-based tools are essential for decentralized work.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

Just something that reminds people that the email you’re about to send or video call you’re about to be on is intended to be read or watched by a person just like you, with the same fears, worries and hopes that you do.

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?

A common platform is critical. These days I am getting emails, texts, voicemails, Skypes, telegraphs… you name it. Once you’re done on one device you move to the next — a unified platform is critical.

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?

We’re fortunate that many of our clients are on the cutting edge of technology. Groups like the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance (AREA) are showing the promise of AR in industry and health care. IOWN is showing the potential for 6G.

There are tons of innovations coming and it’s an exciting time to be in technology.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

While there are many different platforms that “connect” people whether it’s by video, phone, chat, text, etc., but I worry that technology makes us less connected.

For example, when I spend an hour at a dinner table with three twentysomethings, I see how often they look up from their phones.

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?

In 2019, I traveled over 200k miles and spent 225 nights in hotels, all for customer meetings.

Now, it’s all email, phone, text, video and more. While that’s been more efficient, there is still something about breaking bread with someone to build a relationship. Those days will return.

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?

First, be present. It’s always tempting on a screen to be looking at email, phones or other distractions.

Second, make sure you learn context. When you meet with someone face-to-face, you pick up nuance. On video, you may need to start with a simple “how are you doing?”

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

Look for common shared experiences. It’s possible to do that more as people are remote. I look forward to chances to connect about non-work topics. We’ve had magicians, guest speakers, even a llama. We had a great call going around and discussing the best super bowl ads.

More than anything, be genuine and approachable.

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. 🙂

To spend each day trying to make a difference, even in your little corner of the world whether it be from your attic, your home office, or beyond.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can learn more about Virtual Inc. by visiting our website,

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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