Candace Nicolls: “Collaboration challenges”

Collaboration challenges. How often have you stood with your team around a white board, or had a stand up by your desks? These things can be replicated with online tools, but getting the hang of moving to online collaboration, especially when one person might have internet issues, another is wrangling a toddler, and another is […]

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Collaboration challenges. How often have you stood with your team around a white board, or had a stand up by your desks? These things can be replicated with online tools, but getting the hang of moving to online collaboration, especially when one person might have internet issues, another is wrangling a toddler, and another is trying to keep their dog from barking, can be tricky.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Candace Nicolls, Senior Vice President of People and Workplace at Snagajob, where she leads talent acquisition, human resources, HR compliance, training and development, employee engagement, community support and facilities management. With more than 20 years of experience in talent management and acquisition, Candace is passionate about providing an awesome candidate experience. Candace is active with many of Snagajob’s community partners, including Rebuilding Together Richmond, Junior Achievement, Special Olympics Virginia, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Richmond, where she sits on the Board of Directors. A graduate of the College of William and Mary, Candace holds SPHR, SRHM and SCP certifications.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Candace! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?

I sort of fell into this field, not unlike a lot of people I know in recruiting or HR. Shortly after graduating college, I moved to a new city where positions in my somewhat obscure degree field were non-existent. I registered with a temporary service, and my second assignment was in their office… and I didn’t leave for 6 ½ years. I was able to move from a receptionist to a recruiter, and as my career progressed with other companies, I was able to concentrate on technical recruiting and management, which eventually brought me to Snagajob. An entire company dedicated to helping people find their right fit position sounded like the perfect place for me! A couple of years after I started here, I had the opportunity to move into a hybrid HR/recruiting management role, and as we grew, so did my responsibilities and our team. I joined Snagajob’s executive team in November of 2018, and here we are!

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

Many, many years ago, a leader at the company I was with introduced me to the concept of “raving fans”- creating incredible experiences so you don’t just build customers, you build advocates. That was a real light bulb moment for me, and I’ve tried to approach a career that’s based on interactions with others this same way- you really have to differentiate yourself in today’s competitive talent world and relationship-building is a fantastic way to do so. This concept is really what makes great employer brands stand apart, too. I’m constantly amazed at how small the world is- you meet so many people in this industry, and I’ll still bump into people I met 15 years ago who remember me. It really emphasizes the importance of making sure you treat people not just with kindness, but that they really feel like you’ve done your best for them.

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?

It’s been a long time since I was first starting! Most of the mistakes I can think of were more cringe-worthy than funny, and typically involved sending someone with the wrong skill set or attire to a customer site when I was in staffing.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

As the leader in your organization, remember that your actions set the tone for everyone below you. You need to project the right balance of realism, optimism, empathy, and inspiration, especially in times of crisis. You need to clearly communicate what you’re seeing that impacts the organization and how you’re making decisions. You need to embrace flexibility, push leaders to embrace flexibility, and recognize the work that people are doing while they’ve got unprecedented macro impacts weighing on them. This is also the time when focus and prioritization are more important than ever. You’ll probably need to pivot what your organization is doing, so making sure people understand what you have to accomplish, and by when, matters immensely so they aren’t doing throwaway work. You need to encourage people to step away, or even better, understand the pressure people may be under and look at new opportunities to implement innovative solutions, like giving the entire company the day off. Take the time to really understand where people are and where they’re coming from, and adapt your message if needed.

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?

I’ve had at least one person on my team in a geographically different location than me off and on for about sixteen years.

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?

There are definitely some traps that managers can fall into if they’re not careful when they first start managing a remote team:

  1. If I can’t see you, how do I know you’re working? This is probably the most important one to squash. If companies aren’t used to working remotely, and especially if there’s not a relationship of trust that’s been built between manager and employee, a dynamic of micro-management can quickly evolve.
  2. Access to information. When we’re in offices, we pass each other in the halls and share information. We linger after meetings and have carry over conversations. We swing by someone’s desk to see if they can help with something. When everyone’s remote, these things aren’t possible, so information must be intentionally shared.
  3. Assignments may not be clear. Everyone needs to understand what they’re supposed to be doing, and that’s even more critical when working from home. If someone is used to standing up and asking a colleague a clarifying question, the lack of ability to do that might leave someone in limbo if they’re not sure how to do something.
  4. Lack of connectedness. Generally, people have friends at work, and getting to work with them is a big part of why people enjoy their jobs. Personal conversations and connection are a big part of what makes people productive, and missing out on that together time can lead to feelings of isolation or loss (on top of everything else remote workers are dealing with right now).
  5. Collaboration challenges. How often have you stood with your team around a white board, or had a stand up by your desks? These things can be replicated with online tools, but getting the hang of moving to online collaboration, especially when one person might have internet issues, another is wrangling a toddler, and another is trying to keep their dog from barking, can be tricky.

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

Fortunately, there are LOTS of things you can do to make sure you’re leading your remote teams successfully:

Overcommunicate: When in doubt, assume more is more. Context is really important, so make sure you’re talking about what you’re seeing, why you’re making decisions, and share REAL data. Use the right tool for the right job, especially if you’ve got lots of communication channels where people can find info- make it easy for people to find the answers they’re looking for.

Establish clear objectives: Priorities matter more than ever before, so make sure your remote teams know that they need to accomplish. Tie the work they’re doing into the overarching objectives of the organization, and make sure everyone knows what success looks like. Now is not the time to be vague- make sure deadlines are clear, and that everyone knows where and who to go to if they need help.

Celebrate wins and give recognition: We get it- there’s a lot going on, and there’s a lot that has people on edge. That’s why now is the perfect time to make sure you’re celebrating success. If someone is working hard, and is knocking it out of the park, let everyone know that! Make it real, make it specific, and tailor it to the individual. No win is too small!

Check in: Take the time to check in on your people as, well, people. Schedule virtual coffee with them, or make sure you’re taking time during each of their 1:1s to talk about how they actually are. Make sure you’re still talking about individual development, and how you can help someone achieve that next level of success (maybe even while letting them know it’s fine when their toddler joins your team meetings).

Help your team connect: Find ways to make sure your team- whether that’s your specific team or your whole company- are staying in touch. It doesn’t need to be a virtual happy hour- maybe it’s a QBR where everyone gets to show off what they did the previous quarter. Maybe it’s an open virtual meeting where anyone can pop in and say hello or ask for help on something. Maybe it’s a personalized Slack channel where only talking in gifs is allowed. Get creative, and ask your team! There’s probably a way for people to stay connected and successful that you’ve not even thought of.

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?

There are so many great options for video conferencing that it’s easier than ever to give someone meaningful feedback, regardless as to whether or not they’re in the same room as you. I’m a big proponent of avoiding the “feedback sandwich”, where you hide constructive feedback within two pieces of praise. Instead, there are a couple of key things to keep in mind- first, make it timely. When you see an opportunity to give feedback, do it. Waiting a couple of weeks until your next check in makes it really difficult to be impactful. Second, make sure you’re focusing on what happened and the impact it had, NOT why you think someone did it. We’re big fans of Kim Scott’s approach outlined in Radical Candor. This way, the person understands how the action was interpreted and the resulting outcomes- it doesn’t get perceived as a judgement call against the person that you’re trying to give this feedback to. Ultimately, feedback is a gift, and you want to make sure you’re delivering it in a way that ensures the person on the receiving end understands this is to help them improve.

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

If possible, don’t! Feedback is almost always better delivered by an actual conversation. If this is the first time you’re giving someone feedback on a particular area, you really have to give that “in person”, so ideally on video chat, but at least by phone call. Sharing it over email doesn’t guarantee that the right sentiment or context will come through, so it could come across as discipline instead of feedback. If you need to give feedback on something that you’ve already discussed, and an in person conversation isn’t possible to have quickly, sharing the situation by email, referencing the conversations you’ve already had about that topic, can be a bridge until your next conversation.

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?

It’s really important to remember that we’ve not all just shifted to working remotely- we’ve all shifted to working from our homes because there’s a global pandemic that’s forced us to. Normal expectations around finding a quiet space away from your kids or pets are no longer realistic, so we all have to reset our expectations of what work looks like right now. If you’re not willing to be flexible on hours, or dress codes, or having kids sometimes crash your meetings, you’re not enabling your employees to be productive. That being said, establishing SOME norms is important. You want to make sure people know where to go for certain types of resources or communications. Do you prefer everyone have their camera on during video calls? Say so! Setting those guidelines as early as possible will help ensure you’re putting the right level of structure into your work.

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?

If you don’t already have a culture that’s healthy and empowering, it’s not going to suddenly manifest when everyone is remote. If you’ve got a culture that’s thriving, it’s more important than ever to really lean into your mission and core values. Think about the norms that are important to your company, and how you can modify them to everyone being remote. Rituals matter- don’t let them get forgotten just because you’re not all together. If you have a company meeting every Thursday, for example, don’t stop doing those! It’s also a great time to think about how to transfer some of the in person things you’d normally do to a virtual format. Grabbing “coffee” with a colleague, having a team meeting- all can be done online to keep that cadence of communication and connectedness up!

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 have so many thoughts on this, and my family and I talk often about ideas we have around this very thing. If I had to pick one thing, it would be figuring out a way to instill more empathy into everyone. It’s a core component of emotional intelligence, of course, which in my opinion is the most important skill a leader can have. Beyond that, though, I’d hope it could help everyone gain a little more perspective on where other people are coming from, particularly right now when things often feel more divided than together.

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

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” It was attributed to John Wesley when I learned it, and while I don’t think he actually said it, this is the approach I’ve tried to take to everything in my life. I think this is more important than ever, as people are facing challenges we never could have dreamed of, all within an incredibly polarized political climate. It’s a good reminder to take a step back and make sure you’re contributing to the inclusion, not the divide.

Thank you for these great insights!

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