Getting to know colleagues. — Onboarding is definitely more difficult in a virtual environment because you have to make a point to socialize — there aren’t spontaneous meetings in a break room or group lunches you can join. Gatherly is still a small company, and yet I went two weeks without meeting one of our newest employees because my schedule was hectic. Now I really pull out all the stops to have that meeting as soon as possible. Regular one-on-ones are also important for CEOs, even for companies with up to 25 to 40 employees. I use them as a chance to listen, and by doing that I’ve learned a lot.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Cherian.
Chris Cherian is the CEO and co-founder of Gatherly, an online video conferencing platform specifically designed for events. The platform allows users to host online events where participants can seamlessly flow between one-on-ones, smaller huddles, and bigger groups. Gatherly is part of Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X startup accelerator program.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. What is your “backstory”?
I’m a 21-year-old entrepreneur and college student. COVID-19 has impacted both of these areas of my life. Back in 2019, my co-founders and I planned to launch a product that would enable gyms to sell body scans and related health and fitness data points to their members. When we realized that the pandemic was forcing gyms overseas to close — before the U.S. economy began to shut down — we decided to pivot to a new concept: re-imagining the virtual meeting experience. The company we launched is called Gatherly, which is part of Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X startup accelerator program. While I’m a senior at Wharton, several of my co-founders attend Georgia Tech. There are strong synergies between our backgrounds; I’m studying finance whereas two of my Georgia Tech co-founders, Sohan and Carl, are picking up an engineering background. The ability to lean on each other for different areas of the business has been incredibly helpful. I’m currently studying remote from Atlanta, my hometown, while also leading the Gatherly team.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I watch shows like Silicon Valley on HBO about how cutthroat business can be, but I assumed that’s made-for-television drama. However, I’m learning real life can be just as dramatic. Earlier this year, an individual from a prominent venture capital firm reached out and asked for information about our business. The more we looked into the request, however, the more we were convinced something wasn’t right. Through our research, we found out the person who supposedly emailed us no longer worked for the venture firm. We eventually determined that a competitor was posing as this venture capital executive to get information from us. We sent a “joke pitch” in response, claiming that we intended to raise a billion dollars by the next week. But we learned an important lesson: Always do your research.
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 hard enough to start a business in a traditional setting where everybody is in the same office and collaboration is effortless, but we started our company at the outset of a global pandemic. Because we’re working from homes scattered around the U.S., we’ve had to institute protocols to strategically organize assignments across our company. We learned this the hard way during an “all-hands” meeting when two people realized they had been doing the same task over the prior week. When you have a small team, that represents a huge waste of time. So now we have regular “standups” — meetings to review an essential database of what everybody is working on that week. Once somebody finishes a task, they move on to the next unassigned deliverable in the database. We also use Slack to share what we’re doing in one sentence.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Launching a company is a tremendous amount of work — and launching one virtually during a pandemic makes it harder to separate work from your personal life. That’s something that all students in Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X startup accelerator program are dealing with right now. Your home is your office and your office is your home (and if you’re a student, sometimes your bedroom is your office and your office is your bedroom!). One thing we do at Gatherly is encourage people to put lots of detail on their shared calendar. For example, somebody might put “daily workout” or “dinner with family” so their colleagues and the leadership team can respect that personal time. Socializing with co-workers virtually comes fairly naturally to all of us since we’re used to communicating with each other online all day anyway. We’ll play video games together, tackle an online escape room or have a company-sponsored Doordash lunch where we eat together while chatting online.
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?
Gatherly is a young company founded by college students as part of the CREATE-X startup accelerator program at Georgia Tech, so it goes without saying that we don’t have years of experience managing a remote team. However, everybody on the team would be considered a “digital native,” so doing work virtually feels comfortable to all of us. We’re also very fortunate to work with successful entrepreneurs like Dr. Raghupathy Sivakumar, a Georgia Tech professor and CREATE-X co-founder who is always there to discuss entrepreneurial challenges and how to manage through them.
Several of Gatherly’s co-founders worked together for a few months before COVID-19 began shutting things down, and then we transitioned to a fully virtual team in March. There are actually advantages to this situation, such as the ability to hire the best talent anywhere in the world. As we grow and COVID-19 wanes, I suspect we’ll pursue a hybrid model because we do believe looking people in the eye and shaking their hand is beneficial.
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?
- Coordinating with colleagues. — Over the last decade, many businesses embraced the open office concept where people sit in rows of desks with very little separating them from colleagues. One reason for doing this was to promote collaboration among employees throughout the workday, pulling people out of offices and into common workspaces. That model ended up being a terrible idea during a global pandemic, but the concept itself has value: creating work environments where information flows effortlessly from one person to another. Replicating these benefits in a virtual environment takes a much more purposeful approach. You must have controls in place that ensure you don’t have two people in different cities working on the same task, which is a problem we initially experienced.
- Cross-functional collaboration. — Once you establish general protocols to ensure that workflow is organized, you also have to go a level deeper and create channels for cross-functional collaboration. It’s not enough for people to be working on separate projects; they also need to be purposeful about engaging with key partners. For example, our sales team asked our engineers to develop a pricing model and articulated their vision for it. When the project was delivered, it wasn’t what the sales team expected — because there hadn’t been ongoing collaboration throughout the development phase. If we had all been working in the same office, this may not have been a problem. So we encourage each other to be purposeful and proactive: Set up that call with a colleague to check in, or share quick questions over Slack instead of making assumptions.
- Getting to know colleagues. — Onboarding is definitely more difficult in a virtual environment because you have to make a point to socialize — there aren’t spontaneous meetings in a break room or group lunches you can join. Gatherly is still a small company, and yet I went two weeks without meeting one of our newest employees because my schedule was hectic. Now I really pull out all the stops to have that meeting as soon as possible. Regular one-on-ones are also important for CEOs, even for companies with up to 25 to 40 employees. I use them as a chance to listen, and by doing that I’ve learned a lot.
- Separating work from free time. — I’m sure many people across the world can relate to the challenges of separating work from free time during COVID-19. Throughout this pandemic, I’ve heard from many people that they’ve ended up working more because the line between work and home life has blurred. We’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is by being more deliberate. Like many people, I live by my work calendar. Whatever is on that calendar usually dictates how I spend my day. At Gatherly, our solution is to “dictate” free time. Put the family dinner, evening workout or weekend hike on the calendar so you’ve sequestered that time for your own mental and physical well-being. Doing this also helps colleagues to respect that time unless there’s a work emergency. This system really works for us.
- Avoiding burnout. — I had a call with one of my co-founders recently, and at the start of the call he pointed out that I had been sitting in my chair for the past eight hours. He encouraged me to get up and take a walk during the call, so he offered to call me on my mobile number instead of conducting the meeting over Gatherly. His recommendation speaks to a larger issue: Sometimes we’re looking for drastic solutions to “avoid burnout,” whether that’s taking a long vacation, cutting back on work hours or powering off your mobile phone for hours at a time. For entrepreneurs with clients depending on their platform, however, sometimes those solutions aren’t solutions at all. At this stage of my career, I’m focused on “micro solutions.” What can I do right now to help relieve stress and re-energize myself? That might be a 20-minute lunchtime walk or turning on my favorite music while I work. The little things can help avoid burnout, too.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
I’ve begun to white board regularly because it’s the best way for me to visualize a challenge. When I’m working through a problem and it’s starting to get overwhelming, I write out my thoughts and it all starts to come together. The benefits of white boarding aren’t limited to solving engineering problems; it’s a way to list out a whole range of possible solutions to things like staffing and workflow. I believe it helps with subconscious problem solving. Having things written out on a white board keeps my mind focused on various factors, and eventually the right course of action becomes clear.
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?
The second-best thing to providing constructive criticism in person is providing it over a video conference call, that way you can still pick up on body language. It’s also critical to set expectations upfront. At Gatherly, one of our values is “radical candor.” If somebody messes up, our leadership team will confront them, respectfully. We’re a young company, so we don’t have millions of dollars to pad our balance sheet and compensate for mistakes. At the same time, we also believe our leadership team has to listen. I and my co-founders have one-on-one listening — or “shut up” — sessions when employees can talk to us and managers talk less than 10 percent of the time. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and sometimes listening to employees can help prevent problems that would otherwise necessitate constructive criticism.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
When giving feedback over email, it’s definitely easier — but that comes at the cost of being imprecise. You often expect the other person to naturally understand what you’re saying. At Gatherly, we’ve had issues with project managers littering a document with input that simply says, “please fix.” That can be frustrating for the person receiving the feedback. In general, when feedback is complicated or nuanced, we like to do a call or Gatherly meeting to go through the suggested changes together in order to avoid confusion and save time. Often, it’s easier and takes less time to just talk things out.
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?
Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has said that young startups should never hire an employee until there is an extensive job description and training program. (I think this advice is equally important for established companies, too.) If you’re transitioning to a virtual team, ask yourself these two questions: Does everybody on your team have a crystal-clear understanding of their job description? Since your workplace has been upended, do you need a new training program to help people understand how the new structure works? Being able to answer “yes” to these two questions is critical if you want to set up your virtual team for success.
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?
There will always be people on a team who would much rather meet in person than over a video conference call. That’s unavoidable. However, I do believe that anybody can grow to embrace a virtual work setting if it’s done right. I would suggest three different truisms to help guide this process: First, don’t force it. If the virtual evening happy hour was a bust after two tries, don’t go for a third. Forcing people to do something they don’t enjoy creates a negative work culture. Second, try different things. Don’t get discouraged after one idea flops. Lots of factors determine whether a particular method of building a successful virtual work culture is the right path. Third, build social events around what comes naturally. If you’ve found that most employees are eating their lunch and are more sociable during 12 p.m. meetings, try turning those into team building exercises and taking a break from work. Or, if you have a young team that likes video games, for example, use that platform to connect with people who have similar interests by playing multi-player games online. The right solution will be different for every company; the key is to find what works.
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. 🙂
Mental health is a huge issue for startups. When people see Elon Musk — a kind of idealized entrepreneur — sleeping on a Tesla factory floor, it can seem like the measure of an entrepreneur’s success is how far he or she is willing to push physical and mental limits. In this business, people brag about working 80 to 100 hours a week. Yes, starting a business is hard and often the weeks are very long, but I don’t know if we should be idolizing this behavior as if it’s an end in and of itself. There are people I like outside of my company, for example, and I’d like to maintain strong relationships with them — even during this hectic season of my life. Student mental health and wellbeing is also something that’s talked about very openly at Georgia Tech, so I’m grateful that there’s already awareness among our co-founders of why it’s important to pay attention to this issue.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you want to inspire people to build a ship, don’t tell them to cut down the wood and collect nails; inspire them to love the sea.” I like this quote because it sums up what a leader’s main task should be: inspiring passion for the bigger vision of an organization, not the modular tasks that it takes to get there.
Thank you for these great insights!