Repetition- Plan to repeat yourself when communicating. Explain things. Explain them again. Use a different method to explain it. Ask to have it explained back to you. Put it in writing. And after all that, understand that probably about 75% of what you think was communicated actually made it from your brain to someone else’s. This is true with clients as well. I caught myself yesterday telling a client that they had never told us something. Then I stopped myself, I apologized and I told them that I was very sure that they had told us, but that communications are challenged nowadays and that the message simply hadn’t made it all the way to us for full comprehension.
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 Brian Petro.
Brian began his journey in marketing midway through the ’90s when the internet was taking off. He’s worked with businesses in various industries from WestAmerica Bank and Chevron to Bubbies Pickles and First American. He prides himself in his extensive experience in the specialty foods space, where his exceptional branding, design and advertising expertise shines. With a proven track record of over 20 years and hundreds of satisfied clients, Petro and his team currently manage millions of dollars in advertising, high-quality content, in-house writing, photography, video production and more.
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? Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most pertinent thing in my backstory is that it’s diverse. Although my work now is solidly white-collar, I know what it’s like to get your hands dirty. My first jobs were working as a construction laborer for a few years and subsequently I was a chimneysweep for another few. These experiences have given me a much broader perspective than I would have otherwise. Additionally, right before I opened my agency, I traveled throughout the world backpacking through Asia, Europe, and the US.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite motto is “Family first.” Not only does this philosophy serve my family well, but having that perspective builds positive relationships with clients and staff. People want to work with people who have good priorities and give more than lip service to family.
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?
I’ve had many mentors that have helped me along the way. The one that plays the biggest role for me right now is my Creative Director, Steve Rustad. As he approaches an age where many would consider retiring, he instead has taken myself and my staff under his wing as his personal project to help in any way he can.
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?
For a creative agency, being in a room together to brainstorm ideas and pitch approaches is extremely beneficial. There is something about the energy in a room full of smart creative people that is tough to beat.
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?
Hiring and training is more challenging remotely. As good as technology has gotten in 2021, it is nowhere near transparent. There is always a little window of technology that you are working through. It’s like building a ship in a bottle.
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.)
- – Encourage Video Calls — Our agency has a standing Google Meet address that we all have a shortcut to on our browsers. We call this virtual meeting room “The Clubhouse.” So much is lost in translation when you can’t see each other’s face. We’re constantly messaging each other but as soon as the communication gets the least bit tricky, we say “Want to jump into the clubhouse?”
- – Maintain Work/Life Balance — We encourage our staff to unplug outside business hours. We ask them to turn off their computer once they are “clocked out.” Moreover, we ask them to turn off phone notifications and even ignore work emails. Our agency is smart about how we plan our work, so we rarely have unexpected “work emergencies.” With our planning tools and scheduled review of each client, we avoid huge setbacks. As much as possible, our code is to work hard when you are working, then try not to think of it at all when you are not. Life is too short.
- – Be Extra Understanding — Give everyone even more flexibility than you normally would. Not only are we dealing with working remotely, but there are all these extra stressors with COVID-19 and national politics. As much as we possibly can, we try to cut everyone some extra slack. We actively encourage dog-walking or yoga breaks in the middle of the day. When someone has to run an errand, they just do it.
- – Repetition- Plan to repeat yourself when communicating. Explain things. Explain them again. Use a different method to explain it. Ask to have it explained back to you. Put it in writing. And after all that, understand that probably about 75% of what you think was communicated actually made it from your brain to someone else’s. This is true with clients as well. I caught myself yesterday telling a client that they had never told us something. Then I stopped myself, I apologized and I told them that I was very sure that they had told us, but that communications are challenged nowadays and that the message simply hadn’t made it all the way to us for full comprehension.
- – Don’t Mistake Tools for Good Management — There are all kinds of fancy communication and online project management tools to help make remote working easier, but they are no replacement for actual competent human management. Because we’ve been successful at building such a smart, effective team, I tend to let people go and do their own thing with minimal oversight. However, when you are working remotely, it is not a time to under-manage.
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 do have somewhat of a mess with phones right now, but we’ve gotten away with it because we really don’t use our phone system much. Both internally and externally our go-to communication methods are video calls via Google Meet or Zoom. Our existing phone system contract will be up in a few months and we’re looking at a fully virtual system.
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?
Google Hangouts is what we use for messaging. It’s as close as we’re going to get to being able to poke your head into someone’s office with a question. For video calls, we started out making calls from Google Hangouts as well, but the call quality wasn’t great, so we switched to Google Meet for in-house calls. For sales and dealing with clients, our default video call tool is Zoom because it’s the tool that our prospects are most familiar with. For our clients, especially in sales, we want to try to avoid a learning curve and use what everyone already knows.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
That balance between enough communication and too much communication is a difficult one. I’ve been talking about how much we encourage video calls, but I have heard horror stories of people stuck in Zoom calls all day, every day. That isn’t the case in our agency. That being said, for internal communication, I think it would be really interesting if there was a way to set up open, ongoing communication channels (be it with voice/text messaging/video), so you could easily reach out to someone you wanted to communicate with, without specifically “calling them,” BUT would automatically filter out irrelevant chatter.
My particular expertise and interest is inUnified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
Until recently, I thought of unified messaging as a system where phone messages were sent to your email. I suppose that’s still true, but now that in-house messaging and video calls are so common, I find that we’re using many different tools again. It would be interesting if they could all be combined into a single system; however, we are somewhat spoiled by the individual solutions that we currently use and like. It would be a challenge to find a single solution that would satisfy all our technical requirements as well as all personalities and what we’re used to.
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?
I’m still thinking of VR, AR, and Mixed Reality as a novelty. My son has an Oculus and has fun with it for gaming. I’m not aware of a good way to put it to work in the operations of my business yet. With that being said, I am very open to this technology as a marketing tool for our clients.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Until there is widespread adoption, this type of tech will remain expensive and technical. There will probably be a rough transition period where clients are learning to use these tools and I foresee a lot of calls dropped or sales opportunities lost. However, in the end, everyone will adapt to the future just as well as they have adapted to iPhones and other tools in the present.
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?
With clients, because of COVID-19 our main “communications move” has been from phone and face-to-face meetings to video calls. Surprisingly, it was a very smooth transition and honestly in a lot of ways it was an improvement. Video calls are much better tools than plain old telephone calls. Video calls don’t require the driving time that face-to-face meetings require. As far as chatbots, we have discussed adding chatbots to some prospective client websites but haven’t had a bite yet.
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?
I think this is more about being an effective manager than it is about the technology. It is true that remote work is harder, but if you are a caring human being who really wants what is best for everyone, that will come through regardless of the technology. I had to dissolve a position during this pandemic and let someone go through a video call. It was really tough, but because we had established a good relationship with this person, I don’t think the technology got in the way.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Our agency encourages the use of our messaging system to share personal info. On any given day, we may have paintings that someone’s child (or cat) made, or we’re sharing links to old favorite songs, or we’re teasing each other about being sore from working in the garden over the weekend. We all know more about each other’s households than we probably would if we weren’t working remotely. We also have weekly all-staff video calls where each person runs (quickly) down what’s going on with them business-wise and what they did over the weekend.
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. 🙂
I’m a devoted Christian, so I have an easy go-to answer, which would be to inspire a world-wide Christian revival. That’s not an especially popular or politically correct answer so my backup (more printable) answer would be:
I see a driving concern especially with millennials to make businesses a force of good. You see that exemplified with organizations that have qualified to be a “B Corp.” I would argue that every well-run business is a force for good already. Every business that truly wants to do what’s best for their customers, their employees, their community, and their bottom line is, by definition, a force for good. I would like to inspire people to embrace this idea.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
LinkedIn Profile: www.linkedin.com/in/bpetro
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.