Clearly document company goals, projects, and meetings. When everyone on your team is working remotely and in different time zones, it is easy to fall into a giant game of telephone. Making sure information is readily available allows every team member to react and engage at the same time without something slipping through the cracks or getting out of context. Leading with written communication also allows for all personality types, especially introverts, to equally participate and puts everyone on a more level playing field.
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 Rainey. He is the Chief Executive Officer of Gooten, the globally distributed production and logistics company that operates a smart supply chain for brands and retailers looking to reshape their eCommerce business with on-demand manufacturing. As a “big picture” thinker, Brian elevates the organization through pivotal leadership and strategic direction. Brian maintains an entrepreneurial perspective by which he views every challenge as an opportunity. He solves problems by curating and motivating an inspired, highly skilled cross-functional team to ensure the seamless executions of processes by devising and formulating business strategies as well as creating short-term goals and long-term objectives.
Prior to Gooten, Brian worked in the accounting and finance industries, previously serving as the Chief Financial Officer of Buzz Points, Inc, based in Austin Texas, a FinTech company delivering local rewards for community banks and credit unions. Before that, he worked at Deutsche Bank in New York and the Venture Capital Services Practice at Deloitte in the Washington DC area.
Brian holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting and Finance from James Madison University in Virginia, and an MBA from the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.
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?
Prior to Gooten, I served as the CFO of a fintech company that delivered local rewards for community banks and credit unions. Before that, I primarily worked in the financial services industry at companies like Deloitte and Deutsche Bank. One of the reasons I wanted to move away from the finance industry is because it is a zero-sum game — meaning, for me to give something to someone I have to take it away from someone else. Instead, I wanted to create efficiencies within inefficient processes so that everyone can win. That is what drew me to Gooten because we only succeed when our partners succeed. It’s one of the reasons why we call our customers partners because at the end of the day, we are their business partner and our goals are 100% aligned with theirs.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One year there was a snowstorm in St. Louis at one of our manufacturing partner’s locations four days before 2500 items needed to be shipped out in order to arrive by Christmas. The orders we fulfill aren’t run-of-the-mill, everyday products that you can pick up at your local store. They are personalized and customized. One of the core benefits of Gooten is that we offer redundancies — meaning our product SKUs are available in more than one facility. Even though the St. Louis location was out of commission, we were able to move all those orders to one of our partners in North Carolina and they were able to produce, ship, and deliver all those items in time for the holidays. We were not only able to persevere because of our production capability and network, but also because of the strength and dedication of our team members.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Burnout happens when you are so in the weeds and you don’t give yourself time to zoom out and disconnect for a day. Taking that time off to see the bigger picture and celebrate your successes is incredibly important.
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?
The first person that comes to my mind is one of my colleagues who recently celebrated his 6th year anniversary at Gooten. He started off as one of the first customer support agents and now leads our primary accounts and is the president of Gooten’s subsidiary company in Serbia. Because of him, we’ve been able to achieve significant growth at Gooten as he is always advocating and innovating on behalf of our merchant partners.
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 a 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?
When your team is working in an in-person setting, the friction of having a conversation is essentially zero. You can easily stop by someone’s desk or office to ask a question or grab a few people together for a brainstorming session over coffee. This flexibility allows for a greater flow of communication and understanding that can sometimes be lost virtually.
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?
Communication is more than what someone says or writes on the surface — it also encompasses body language, context, listening, and other non-verbal actions. These latter activities can be misinterpreted or overlooked when a team isn’t physically in the same place and can eventually lead to challenges such as lack of alignment, doubling work responsibilities, and low morale.
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.)
1. Invest in real-time communication platforms. This allows you to double down on transparency and ensures everyone on your team is on the same page. If it’s relevant to your industry and business model, this can also be incredibly important in providing real-time data for your customers.
2. Clearly document company goals, projects, and meetings. When everyone on your team is working remotely and in different time zones, it is easy to fall into a giant game of telephone. Making sure information is readily available allows every team member to react and engage at the same time without something slipping through the cracks or getting out of context. Leading with written communication also allows for all personality types, especially introverts, to equally participate and puts everyone on a more level playing field.
3. Democratize information. When we had an in-person office, we had a few people that knew everything and who everyone went to for information. Having siloed information is not possible when you have a distributed team. It’s important to create a centralized company wiki where anyone in the company can go to browse for information and resources.
4. Create space for people to voice their feedback. In a remote setting, it can be even more challenging for your employees to communicate their concerns or issues. It’s important to go the extra mile — whether that’s through surveys, 1:1s, or town halls — to give your team the opportunity and freedom to express themselves in order to create a better working environment.
5. Allow and design your company to have redundant positions for “always on” teams. As a distributed on-demand manufacturing company, having duplicated roles across critical teams like operations, technology, and customer support is incredibly important for the success of our partners as well our employees’ work-life balance. Having multiple team members across different time zones allows us to fully utilize a 20-hour work day without compromising everyone’s well being and workload.
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?
As a company who doubled in number of employees over the last year, we needed to improve our communication more than ever before since we had a significant number of new and remote employees. This forced us to improve documentation, transparency, and feedback loops.
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?
Of course Zoom and Slack have become everyday essentials. Beyond these platforms, setting cultural norms has become one of the most effective tools for communication. Meeting agendas have been an important way for everyone to come prepared and eliminate unnecessary update or follow-up meetings. Additionally, creating a well-designed information architecture system within a shared wiki (at Gooten, we use Confluence) is a great way to document high level project-planning as well as day-to-day tactical action items.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Being in-person allowed our team to more easily bond with one another through shared interests. At Gooten, we’re invested in learning how to create this sense of camaraderie and team cohesion without trying to fit a round peg into a square hole — simply put, a virtual happy hour cannot replicate the ease and sociability of an in-person happy hour.
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?
Slack has immensely improved our ability to communicate and share information real-time.
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?
As a distributed company, we are not opposed to adopting new technologies to help bring remote teams together. While we will be on the forefront of them, we won’t force platforms on employees if they prove to be unnecessary or ineffective. At the end of the day, tools and technology are only as good as how you use them.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Right now a lot of companies are talking about going back to work in an office. Similarly with the conversation around adopting new technologies — if a team member primarily makes phone calls all day, is it truly necessary for them to work in an office setting if that work can be done more effectively at home? This rush back to “normal” may not result in the most productive outcomes.
We should take a step back and examine what types of activities are most successful in an in-person setting — such as brainstorming — and then, redesign the architecture of the office space to better serve those use cases.
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?
From a customer point of view, Gooten’s business model, as a global distributed on-demand supply chain, has always been remote even prior to the pandemic. However now because our team is no longer limited to a geographical location, we can hire individuals who are experts in their fields regardless of where they live. This has only created better outcomes for our partners because we can deliver more tailored, real-time solutions.
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?
Human nature doesn’t change just because you are working remotely. We can’t allow technology to delude us into thinking human interactions are not important. The best way to humanize tough conversations is to ensure that video is on and you both are face-to-face.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
- Invest heavily in employee onboarding to ensure that new team members immediately feel that sense of belonging and ownership.
- Create non-work related Slack channels
- Take the cost savings of not having an office and invest in regional or small team activities — especially as countries and states start to open up safely.
- Share and celebrate your wins!
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. 🙂
Individual civic duty is a priority at Gooten which is one of the reasons why we gave our team members a day off on November 3rd to vote, canvas, or work at a poll. Because we are a global company, we also asked our non-US team to use that day to advance the causes they care about. We encourage our team to be civically active because being inactive won’t bring any good to people. Additionally, burnout is a real thing and it’s so important for employees to take their time off to rest and recharge.
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.