Daron Robertson of BroadPath: “Pay attention to air-time”

When we surveyed employees at the onset of lockdown to understand how aspects of their lives were changing, 63 percent indicated that they did not expect the pandemic to have much overall impact on their jobs at BroadPath. This feedback was affirming because lack of control and social isolation have been major pain points in […]

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When we surveyed employees at the onset of lockdown to understand how aspects of their lives were changing, 63 percent indicated that they did not expect the pandemic to have much overall impact on their jobs at BroadPath. This feedback was affirming because lack of control and social isolation have been major pain points in the transition to remote work during the pandemic, increasing the risk for burnout exponentially. We felt reassured that technology and programs developed within our organization had already created a sense of connection and stability among our teams and, as proof, we experienced no disruption to business from the pandemic.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Daron Robertson, CEO and co-founder of the virtual workplace platform Bhive and CEO and founder of BPO Service Provider BroadPath. Daron has redefined how remote work is conducted, recreating an open office environment while addressing common remote-work challenges — connectivity, accountability, and security — for thousands of his employees working from home offices in 50 states and 4 countries. To help care for employees mental and physical health, Daron enhanced Bhive with a unique wellness program, HiveLife, that features stress management, meditation, and nutrition classes.

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”?

My mom and dad had somewhat unconventional backgrounds which influenced my life path significantly. My mother was from Missouri but grew up in the rainforests of Costa Rica during the revolutionary period. Her father, my grandfather, was an Indiana Jones type figure who flew around with the pilot Jimmy Angel (for which Angel Falls, Venezuela is named) scouting for gold mines. He even had a Peruvian mummy stored in his attic for a while. My dad grew up in more conservative Arizona but spent years rock climbing and Alpine mountaineering in Europe with Jon Harlin, a well-known figure at the time. He was a perfectionist and extremely competitive in everything he did (e.g., high jumping, climbing, sailplane gliding).

With this backdrop I spent the first half my life collecting interesting experiences, which is to say I tried a lot of things but committed to little. For instance, for several years I nurtured a strong interest in sustainable agriculture and spent time in the rainforests of Ecuador and Brazil studying indigenous farming practices. After that, I pivoted into water and wastewater engineering for a few years. Then went to business school, had a brief stint at PwC for strategy consulting, then worked to open a rock-climbing gym in Chicago. I finally shifted into the healthcare field and helped grow a services business for several years.

After 20 years of this — jumping into disparate endeavors for three to five-year stints — I began to feel unfulfilled and lacking purpose. I needed to recalibrate.

In classic tradition, I quit my job and moved out west. Over the course of several months spent reading, road-tripping and rock climbing, I began to appreciate that part of my discontent stemmed from lack of long-term commitment. I was always searching for the next big thing (better job, better relationship, better city) and coming up feeling empty. Like a life tourist.

In retrospect it seems odd, but I made a conscious decision to just commit. Within the same year I proposed to my wife and started a new business, embarking on a ten-year journey where both family and work have blossomed into more fulfilling and enriching endeavors than I could have ever imagined.

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

In early 2009 I experienced a truly make-or-break moment for my fledgling company. The financial crisis had but the brakes on our initial launch, and I was the only remaining employee of BroadPath, working alone in my above-the-garage office and struggling to land my first client. Out of nowhere, a hot prospect dropped into my lap. It was the perfect first client: they needed help urgently, wanted to work with me, and I knew we could knock it out of the park for them. Most importantly, they were a Fortune 50 organization. Working for them would boost our credibility and could dramatically accelerate our growth.

There was only one hitch. For reasons unknown, their risk management department prohibited them from doing business with any home-based businesses. Given our neighborhood location and guest-house layout we very much resembled a work-from-home company. Moreover, they required a physical inspection of the office before they could move forward, and said inspection needed to occur the very next day to keep the tight deadline.

Panicked but optimistic (a state of mind that dominated the first few years of our existence), I consented to the inspection and began to scramble for a solution. Online, I found a checklist outlining their specific criteria for what defined a “real office”: a) building zoned as a business, b) permanent sign affixed to structure, c) office equipment visible, and so on.

After careful research, I discovered that my sister’s house was in fact one of a handful in the community that was dual-zoned business/residential. Bingo! Next, I bought a clear plastic sign, bolted it to the side of the house, and slipped our name and logo inside. Finally, I decided to purchase additional office equipment (even an old fax machine) to build out the business-like atmosphere.

The inspector, a very pleasant person, showed up and asked all the questions I knew were coming. She took a few pictures, checked the box “not a home-based business” and left. I won the contract, we knocked it out of the park, and they became a much-referenced client that put us on the map. We never looked back.

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?

So many mistakes to recount. In the early days, every misstep seemed almost existentially threatening to the business. In retrospect few things were. For example, I remember the first time we accidentally sent our pricing information to a competitor via “reply all” (yes, it’s happened more than once). I felt punched in the gut. As bad as that was, I am much more forgiving of mistakes now. In fact, over the years many of our competitors have returned the favor!

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

Since our workforce has been 100 percent work-from-home for nearly a decade, we have made it a priority to recognize and proactively tackle burnout, both from the standpoint of compassionate leadership and also because our employees are on the front line as vital shapers of customer experience.

When we surveyed employees at the onset of lockdown to understand how aspects of their lives were changing, 63 percent indicated that they did not expect the pandemic to have much overall impact on their jobs at BroadPath. This feedback was affirming because lack of control and social isolation have been major pain points in the transition to remote work during the pandemic, increasing the risk for burnout exponentially. We felt reassured that technology and programs developed within our organization had already created a sense of connection and stability among our teams and, as proof, we experienced no disruption to business from the pandemic.

This test of our resilience further convinced me that leaders who understand the importance of building a strong remote culture of connection, and invest in the resources to do so, will have the greatest long-term success with the remote model.

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?

We began the remote transition in 2009 and have been almost 100% remote for almost 10 years, with several thousand employees working from home offices in the US, Philippines, Australia, and Japan.

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?

Historically only about 10% of the US white-collar workforce has enjoyed working from home full-time (with the pandemic temporarily kicking that up to almost 80%). Pre-pandemic, many companies were sounding the death knell for remote work with some like IBM and Yahoo even calling their remote workers back into the office. Why was this the case? In my experience the two biggest headwinds against widespread adoption have always been social connection and management trust. The remote model doesn’t naturally promote either, and in the absence of intentional practices that do, work-from-home programs can fail spectacularly.

It’s important to call out that “remote work” is not a monolithic, one-size-fits-all proposition. For example, managing a small team of highly collaborative knowledge workers who spend all day in Zoom meetings is very different from a work-from-home contact center with thousands of agents handling back-to-back calls and little spare time to interact with colleagues. Most discussions and advice about remote work in the media have focused on the former. But for large global enterprises with a wide range of employees working in different locations, factors like work function, role, size and scale of operation, cultural norms, infrastructure reliability, and business continuity need to be considered. For example, when we first established work-from-home operations in the Philippines, we found workers there to be more socially motivated in general than in the US, with higher participation in our online social and wellness programs. Not surprisingly however, power and internet reliability were a major issue and we were forced to develop a unique approach to home-office setup with built-in redundancies. We also had to be more thoughtful about where we hired employees regionally to minimize exposure to weather events.

These considerations aside, social connection and trust are of paramount importance for any remote work program. Together they drive success and adoption. In terms of connection, building a cohesive culture and thriving community should be the highest goal in any remote-first organization. Having employees integrated into a robust network of positive, supportive, and collaborative work relationships is difficult under any circumstances, but exponentially more so in a remote work environment. Socially connected employees are more engaged, more productive, better collaborators, more loyal, and healthier both physically and mentally. Organizations that overlook or downplay this fundamental challenge will be hard-pressed to sustain a productive remote-first approach over the long term.

In our organization the concept of Social Connection is our north star. We use the term in a broad sense to include employees feeling connected to each other, connected to leadership, connected to our clients, and connected to the mission of the company overall. The idea informs almost everything we do ranging from our hiring practices to quality management processes.

Trust, on the other hand, is not as widely acknowledged an impediment to remote work but is arguably the stronger headwind. It’s often the elephant in the room people don’t want to recognize, but the simple fact is that we trust more that which we can see. For example, research has shown that people cooperate more when in close physical proximity than when distant. Leaders love to say they place great trust in their remote workforce and manage only to outcomes, but their actions often say otherwise. This explains why demand for employee monitoring software increased 200–300% during the pandemic — employers are simply not convinced that workers at home will be as productive.

In my experience, trust and connection together are root factors underlying most successes and failures of remote work programs. Within any organization, there are specific practices, technologies, and behaviors that promote connection and trust and others that erode them. Last year, we got serious about really exploring these issues and held a week-long leadership retreat where, among other exercises, we developed a list of “connection-enhancing” practices and opportunities. The work we did now informs how we approach every stage within the employment lifecycle (recruiting, onboarding, training, production, coaching, and leadership development).

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

Most would agree that greater use of video communication in general enhances connection and trust among team members. This can be overdone, however. For teams that already spend hours each day in Zoom meetings, video fatigue can become a real issue and it may help to shift some meetings (particularly in the afternoon) to audio only. For other employees with fewer meetings, the opportunity to see other team members on video can be a breath of fresh air and provide more rich social interactions.

We’ve taken video a step further with our Bhive virtual workplace platform, which allows team members to see each other working side-by-side throughout the day even when they’re not in meetings. We use two cameras, one mounted to the side and further away, and one front-facing. While working solo you can glance up and see colleagues at their desk just like at the office, generating a more continuous sense of connection and comradery. It also enhances collaboration since it’s easy to see who’s available for a quick chat. After you initiate a meeting the camera shifts to the standard front-facing view. This “contextual view shifting” replicates a more normal in-person experience and the side-camera reduces video fatigue relative to a normal frontal view. In fact, many of our employees prefer the side camera for group meetings and only use the frontal camera for one-on-one chats.

Our system also facilitates a sense of mutual trust, not only between team members but also between leads and their teams. Some studies have shown that remote workers are promoted less often than their in-office counterparts, which makes sense in this context. Like it or not, we are still wired to take in lots of information visually and seeing is believing.

Another very helpful practice in building connection is to get more intentional about facilitating social interactions and engagement activities. We created a structured, branded virtual program called HiveLife that creates casual, interactive, and intimate workshops to help build stronger relationships with other team members while exploring a topic of mutual interest. You can explore photography, yoga, nutrition, cooking, even pet grooming with colleagues in small-group sessions that run for 6 weeks at a time. Next month we are also launching an IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Action) workshop series within the HiveLife program to mutually explore issues around social justice. These shared virtual experiences, which occur every week, can help employees form strong and lasting friendships.

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?

Constructive feedback via crucial conversations can be very difficult in a remote setting. I try to keep several things in mind when preparing:

  • Familiarize yourself: if it’s been a while since you had a personal connection, try to remember some of the life details about the team member. Hopefully its more than the basic “do they have kids” stuff. We have a profile page in Bhive for each employee where we list hobbies, interests, little known facts, etc. which can be a great place to visit before a conversation.
  • Channel positive intention: try to get yourself into a mindset of positive intention and curiosity before the conversation. What does success look like for your team member? Create a mental image of reaching mutual understanding and focus on the feelings that come up for you. This is especially important virtually where the distance can make it easier for the manager’s imagination to separate from the reality of what’s happening with the employee.
  • Choose empathy and curiosity over judgement: typically, the more confident I am in my understanding of what’s happening prior to a conversation, the more out of touch I turn out to be. It’s a lesson I must re-learn over and over. As managers we know the outcome that needs to change, but we often fail to understand what caused it. Try to enter the conversation with an open mind and facilitate an authentic dialogue based on mutual respect. It will go so much better for both parties if you do.
  • Focus on one behavior only: chances are you have a list of things you want to see change. Force yourself to choose just one and put the rest on the shelf. It will help keep the conversation clear and focused and avoid triggering mental shutdown and defensiveness.
  • Keep video off: if the conversation is going to be especially tough, consider removing the camera from the equation so both parties can focus on the content. This gives each person space to react authentically to what the other is saying without worrying about botching the visuals.
  • Pay attention to air-time: keep track of who is doing most of the talking. This is another way of saying “shut up and listen” and goes to point #2. If you are dominating the discussion, it’s probably time to step back and start asking more insightful questions. A fun but challenging exercise: for an entire conversation, force yourself to ask a follow-up question to every statement the other person makes before responding, no matter what.

I really enjoy this quote from Brene Brown: “If you’re giving good feedback, you should not be able to script what’s going to happen when you sit down with someone. You should be willing to be able to hear.”

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

My advice is to never, under any circumstances, give “constructive” feedback over email. It will never land well and squanders a great opportunity to establish a stronger connection. Ask yourself instead why you want to and explore that. If you still land in email territory, better to just not give the feedback.

In fact, one should try to avoid giving positive feedback over email as well. If you can, write down a few thoughts (specificity is better) to get centered and do a video call to say it in-person. It’s a powerful experience.

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?

As mentioned before, BroadPath has been 100 percent remote for nearly a decade, but we’ve had numerous conversations with different organizations — ranging from strict “office-only” firms to remote-first companies — during and after the lockdown. We found that in the case of companies new to remote work, there is often a lag between making the physical transition and developing the digital working practices and daily rituals that support virtual culture. This is because when you first go remote, you don’t know what you don’t know, and merely replicating the in-office experience remotely can slow or even undermine progress. Managers, therefore, need to take an intentional approach, setting clear remote-first work protocols that include setting measurable goals, focusing on communication, using video conferencing judiciously, and encouraging interaction among teams.

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?

Culture is the ocean we’re swimming in. Often, organizational culture surrounds us so completely that we don’t even see it, healthy or not. Yet, paradoxical as it may seem, today’s virtual workplace provides the perfect opportunity to become more thoughtful about the nature of our ocean. We can leverage technology as never before to consciously create experiences that help employees feel connected, successful, and enthusiastic about “catching the wave.” At BroadPath, we’ve seen this firsthand through our Bhive engagement program which consists of activities ranging from “Random Acts of Kindness Day” to “Living Your Best Quarantine Life.” In August, we encouraged our workforce to celebrate “Sleep Under the Stars Night” during the Perseid meteor showers and post pictures on their Bhive profile pages. Overall, the result is a growing history of organic shared experience unique to remote work.

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. 🙂

If done right, working from home can help people live better and more fulfilling lives. Less time commuting and more time with family, community, and practicing self-care. More opportunity and access to high-paying jobs, on a global scale. Less money spent on rent in high-cost cities.

Our mission is to help people live better and more fulfilling lives by creating a more humanistic and connected remote work experience. COVID has provided an unprecedented opportunity to finally scale work from home but also presents a threat because of all the associated negative experiences (stress, kids at home, lockdowns, etc.). It’s up to us and other true believers to paint a vision for a sustainable and balanced approach that will carry us forward.

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

Energy and persistence conquer all things.” -Ben Franklin

The first quote represents what it was like for the first few years of getting ourselves established as a company. As a startup, it often felt like prospective clients would choose the same worn-out path, making the “safe bet” time and again on a larger competitor despite a track record of sub-par performance. Keeping the faith in our vision was hard, and now years later I appreciate that in our industry you need to be around for a good long time before people know your name and begin to trust you.

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” -Martin Luther King Jr

Like it or not, we succeed or fail together. It’s the underlying “why?” behind our mission as an organization, but also speaks to what we need in society writ large.

Thank you for these great insights!

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