Create opportunities for people to communicate outside of normal work activities (meetings). At Everactive we work hard to provide these opportunities as a company — Brownbag learning sessions, Show & Tell forums, game times, volunteer committees, and even coffee chats set up randomly through Slack — but it is really the grass roots efforts that make the biggest differences. For example, teams holding work sessions over Zoom where folks can go to just hang out and chat while doing their work.
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 interviewingBob Nunn, CEO of Everactive.
Bob Nunn is CEO of Everactive, a batteryless sensor company focused on industrial IoT applications. For more than 30 years, Bob has helped guide start-ups through nearly every stage of growth. His career has included roles at start-up Vitesse Semiconductor, which achieved a multi-billion-dollar valuation, and as President and CEO at Fulcrum Microsystems, which was acquired by Intel.
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 Bob Nunn and I am the CEO of Everactive Inc., a batteryless IIoT start-up headquartered in the Silicon Valley. In terms of backstory, I had decided when I was young that I wanted a career in business of some sort. My father persuaded me that an engineering degree would be a great way to get started. After business school I conducted a search to identify technology companies that I would like to work for. I loved the company I chose, but it was acquired by a much larger company after just two years.
I did not enjoy working for the big company that acquired us. Thinking the problem was simply that they were so big, I started learning about start-ups and made the move to a 30-person company. From there I was hooked and have spent the last 30+ years helping to build and grow start-up companies.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career? Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One piece of advice I received during my transition from a large company to a start-up was: “You should join a start-up as soon as you have something of value to offer.” That advice served me well when I decided to start looking for a new job.
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?
There are so many people that have helped me. It’s hard to pick one person.
Probably the most impactful person was a negative example I was exposed to in my first start-up. The CEO was brilliant, but could be arrogant, demeaning to employees, and felt that he was “above the rules.” While the company he ran was very successful for a while, the success was not sustainable under his leadership.
When I got my chance to be CEO a decade later, I specifically set off to create an environment the opposite of the one I had worked in. I really wanted to prove that by starting with the right people, you could build a team based on mutual respect and trust — and still be successful. Over the last 20 years I have proven this formula works!
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?
Everactive was an interesting start-up when I joined because it was already geographically dispersed. Our headquarters are in Santa Clara, CA, but we also have offices in Charlottesville, VA, and Ann Arbor, MI, where our founders are located. The company was founded by two professors, one at University of Virginia and the other at University of Michigan, which explains why these two locations.
Shortly after I joined, we started talking about the importance of being “One Team” even though we are in three different offices. This philosophy was very helpful during the pandemic. Regardless of whether you work in an office or from a remote location — we are still all on One Team — each having the same opportunity to contribute and be recognized for those contributions.
This philosophy requires a common understanding about how everyone in the company is to communicate. I remember at the outset each location had different expectations on what tools should be used and when different forms of communication were appropriate. As a company, we worked out a standard around expectation for response times via email, slack, text or phone. By creating a common expectation across all locations we were able to further the One Team concept.
The issues around communications keep evolving, but tools like Slack and Zoom have made it much easier for teams to be geographically dispersed and still work effectively together. Now we just need to do something about all of the different time zones….
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.)
- Create a fair playing field. It shouldn’t matter where you are, or whether you work in an office or not. What matters is how you contribute to the team in the pursuit of our common goals. This goes to the heart of how you hire, train, evaluate, and reward employees.
- Provide open and frequent company updates. This includes regular all-hands meetings, (we do them weekly at Everactive) as well as communicating even the little successes over email or Slack. During the pandemic we have also started a weekly Q&A with the CEO (over Zoom) where people can ask me anything that is on their mind.
- Create opportunities for people to communicate outside of normal work activities (meetings). At Everactive we work hard to provide these opportunities as a company — Brownbag learning sessions, Show & Tell forums, game times, volunteer committees, and even coffee chats set up randomly through Slack — but it is really the grass roots efforts that make the biggest differences. For example, teams holding work sessions over Zoom where folks can go to just hang out and chat while doing their work.
- Find ways for employees to get to know each other as people. Before the pandemic we had an annual off-site meeting where we flew everyone into the same location for a couple of days of meetings and social gatherings. (Once it is safe for everyone to travel again, we will pick this back up.) Another example is asking new employees to provide a short overview of who they are and what they are working on after their first 90 days. We also publish individual employee interviews every couple of weeks.
- Encourage travel that gets team members together. Besides the company off-site, that could be team members meeting at one of the offices to work on a specific problem, or employees going together to a customer site. The added cost of travel is well worth the improvements in communication and productivity down the road.
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?
Zoom and Slack are both awesome communications tools. We also use Box, Google and Atlassian tools; plus Gitlab (DevOps), Mero (online whiteboarding) & Monday.com (shared project management).
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 have seen this vary widely from customer to customer. Of course, we have done a lot more over Zoom than we ever thought possible.
One of the best outcomes from the pandemic was the creation of the Everactive Demo Studio in the basement of our Sales Engineering Director. This has allowed us to continue to conduct demos of our monitoring solutions, albeit remotely. We plan to continue to use the Demo Studio concept even after the pandemic — though we will move it out of Peter’s basement and into one of our offices so that everyone can use it.
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?
This is tough, but a reality we faced even before the pandemic.
The key is to establish an honest, trust-based relationship first. Even if you miss some of the visual clues that you might get in person, if you are confident that the person providing the feedback has you best interest at heart, it is much easier to receive candid, critical feedback.
I want to give a shout-out to Kim Scott’s book, Radical Candor. She does a great job describing this concept.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
I’ll refer back to my five things we talked about earlier. Particularly, helping people to communicate outside of their normal work activities.
The other critical thing is to provide a common vision that everyone is working toward, and then repeatedly articulate that vision so that everyone gets it.
And you cannot forget about the role your company culture will play. After working on these issues for a while, we decided to add a “One Team” Core Value to our culture playbook. Here is a piece of that value statement:
We are a team of diverse individuals aligned by a common vision of the future of computing. We are strongest when we respect and embrace our differences. This requires that we share our thoughts, ask questions, and candidly provide feedback and encouragement to others…
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. 🙂
My movement would be to bring equal educational opportunities to all people. I think that having access to great education for everyone would change our world for the better.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.