David Rabin: “Be creative with where you work”

…It’s important to ensure you have a video camera on your employees all day long to ensure they are working. NOTE: this is a joke. What’s true is that for managers who are used to seeing their people in the office and observing their work, this is less practical in a remote environment. And guess […]

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…It’s important to ensure you have a video camera on your employees all day long to ensure they are working. NOTE: this is a joke. What’s true is that for managers who are used to seeing their people in the office and observing their work, this is less practical in a remote environment. And guess what? That’s OK!

A manager is generally not paid for or rewarded by supervising their people for the amount of hours they work. Rather, the manager is rewarded to motivating and enabling their team to succeed.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Rabin.

David is Vice President, Global Commercial Marketing at Lenovo, driving commercial marketing and enablement for Lenovo’s PC and Smart Device group. This includes product stewardship for the Think family of products, including the legendary ThinkPad laptop. David previously directed Lenovo’s branding, marketing, strategy, and alliance partner activities across North America, including advertising, sponsorships, and business to business marketing.

David has over 20 years of marketing experience, representing a wide range of disciplines including account management, database marketing, media planning, marketing intelligence and insights, events, and holds a Bachelor of Science in Marketing from the Tulane A.B. Freeman School of Business. He lives in Raleigh, NC, with his wife and two kids.

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

I’ve been in the marketing industry for over 20 years. My first job after graduating from Tulane, was at an advertising agency and then I moved to New York to work at J. Walter Thompson. After almost three years, I took a job in Detroit at Young & Rubicam working on the Ford Motor Company account, managing Lincoln’s 100 million dollars national advertising program and competitive intelligence.

After five years at Young & Rubicam, I was excited for a change and took a position at Lenovo as the Director of Marketing Communications. Now in my current role as Vice President of Global Commercial Marketing, I get to focus on the commercial business and meet with colleagues and customers around the world. I’ve been at Lenovo for over a decade holding several different positions and haven’t looked back.

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

After nearly 25 years in the working world, I’ve had quite a few memorable experiences… too many to narrow down to just one. They come in all sorts of different themes, such as:

  • Getting to travel the world and meeting customers and colleagues. It’s been eye-opening to experience differences in cultures across places like China, India and Brazil.
  • Giving back to the community and changing lives, including volunteering with Junior Achievement to expose students to financial literacy.
  • Working with sports teams and leagues.
  • Hosting sales kickoffs at Lenovo for thousands of people (and having freedom to go rogue with some of my remarks!)

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?

When I was interviewing for a new position, I wrote a thank you note to the agency recruiter but put the wrong name of the client they were hiring for. I guess at the time this wasn’t so funny, as needless to say, I didn’t get the job. However, it taught me to be more detail oriented, because if you can’t master the little things, you’ll never master the bigger challenges. I can look back and laugh at myself for learning such a valuable lesson the hard way.

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

My advice would be to foster an environment of flexibility for your teams and let them find out what works best for them. For me, I work better in the early mornings because it’s quiet and I have time to really focus, and even steal some downtime on the weekends to wrap things up I didn’t get to during the week. Also, always look for ways to recognize and motivate your teams as people want to deliver more (and thus, burn out less) when they enjoy what they’re doing and feel valued.

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?

Lenovo has had a flexible working environment globally, with some employees working remotely, others in the office and some doing a hybrid of both for years. Keep in mind, we’re also a global company doing business in over 170 markets. Because of this environment, throughout my more than 13 years with Lenovo, I’ve had experience managing a mix of remote employees. We have used video calls and remote technology to manage teams for years but never to the extent we’ve seen through COVID-19.

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?

  • Staying and feeling connected to your teams
  • In the office, it used to be that you could bump into colleagues at the water cooler or in the hallway, but now video tools have become our top means for communicating with teams. In marketing, we also have a reputation for being social, whether it’s team outings or birthday lunches. Those are impossible to do in the current environment. By the way, axe throwing has become quite the popular team outing these days.
  • Encouraging flexible work schedules
  • When we first transitioned to this 100% remote work environment due to COVID, many were juggling new challenges — whether it was homeschooling their kids or managing other distractions at home, such as pets. I have two dogs who just love to bark when they see something move outside, and they always seem to do this when I’m about to present on a conference call!
  • Maintaining employee productivity and collaboration
  • Now more than ever companies need to make sure the employee experience is at the forefront of everything they do. A recent survey from Lenovo revealed that when COVID-19 arrived, workers felt at least somewhat ready to make the shift to a remote environment if required (87%), and 71% felt they had access to the technology they needed
  • Working How You Work Best
  • The work environment was changing before the coronavirus pandemic. Many companies had moved to open or flexible offices, where employees had the option to customize their work environment to meet their needs — from working at a desk, office couch, conference room or kitchen table. For me, I don’t like working at an office desk, but would prefer to ‘roam’ during the day. Sometimes I’d work from the cafeteria, and other times on the walking treadmill.
  • Keeping tabs on your people and making sure they are working a 50-hour work week
  • It’s important to ensure you have a video camera on your employees all day long to ensure they are working. NOTE: this is a joke. What’s true is that for managers who are used to seeing their people in the office and observing their work, this is less practical in a remote environment. And guess what? That’s OK. A manager is generally not paid for or rewarded by supervising their people for the amount of hours they work. Rather, the manager is rewarded to motivating and enabling their team to succeed.

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

  • Staying and feeling connected to your teams
  • Leverage video calls with your teams and be engaged like you would in an office setting. Let me repeat… USE VIDEO! Ok sure, there will be times where it’s just not appropriate or practical, but for the vast majority of meetings, it’s a mandatory. It may be weird, but you’ll get used to it. We’ve embraced video happy hours and lunches, in addition to typical staff meetings, 1:1’s and other touchpoints.
  • Encouraging flexible work schedules
  • Everyone has had to adjust to working remotely, juggling families, and adjusting to small working spaces, which means different work schedules. I’ve been encouraging my team to be more outcome vs. hours focused and take some time during the day to themselves. For example, I like to walk my dogs during lunch time. We’ve made it very clear to our teams that flexibility is the word of the day. If someone has a personal obligation from, for example, noon-2pm every day, that’s not a problem. The team will support that, and the employee will find time in their day to get their work done.
  • Maintaining employee productivity and collaboration
  • As a technology company, we pride ourselves on having tech that transitions seamlessly into a work from home environment. We have equipped our teams with productivity enhancers, monitors, webcams, and collaboration tools, such as headsets to help teams with productivity. In fact, recent data revealed that 61% of employees feel they are as productive if not more so when working from home versus working in an office. Like many companies, we’ve quickly made the shift to collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams and video chat. We’ve also encouraged our employees to replicate what worked for them in the office, at home. So, if they need two monitors or a stand-up desk, then we’ll enable them to do that at home.
  • Working How You Work Best
  1. Be creative with where you work. Going back to my personal workstyle, I’ve never really enjoyed sitting behind a desk all day, so I don’t do it at home. Depending on how I’m feeling, I’ll work outside, or on the couch, or at the kitchen table. In the office, I liked hopping on the treadmill desk periodically. So, what did I do? I bought a treadmill for home and then found an accessory to allow me to use it as a desk. My wife says it’ll be collecting dust in no time, but so far, I’ve proved her wrong.
  • Keeping tabs on your people and making sure they are working a 50-hour work week
  1. Again, this is not at all what managers should be doing. Our job as leaders is to guide our teams, foster their growth, and enable them to contribute to the business through advice, tools, removing roadblocks and more. That shouldn’t change in a remote environment. What does change is the need to check-in a bit differently. If you’re used to hallway ‘collisions’ with your team at work, schedule a short daily video touchpoint at home.

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?

I would recommend delivering constructive criticism through video calls. They take the place of face-to-face conversations because they still provide a human connection with body language and facial expressions. When delivering constructive feedback, it’s also important to couch the bad with the good — so what is the employee doing well, with what can they work on improving. Providing suggestions and clear guidelines for improvement are critical.

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

In general, it’s always best to avoid delivering constructive criticism through emails. It leaves out the tone and human connection that a quick video call provides. However, if it is the only means — like video, it will be important to start off on a positive note, provide the feedback, and offer steps to improve. Always offer up the opportunity to discuss over a phone or video call.

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?

We need to be mindful that employees’ situations are incredibly important and draining, as some are acting as teachers, parents, and co-workers at the same time. Rather than confronting employees for not immediately responding to an email, or being readily available when you call, be flexible.

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?

Building connections and keeping a team’s culture and morale high is difficult during such a challenging time. However, it’s vital we work to create a healthy, encouraging, collaborative working environment when not physically together. I recommend setting a daily team meeting, or even periodic video happy hours, to keep constant means of communication. Additionally, encouraging chat room discussions on matters outside of work can help keep the culture strong.

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 I could inspire a movement, it would be focused on young people and providing opportunities to the kids and teens who don’t have someone to open the door for them and show them their potential. Personally, and at Lenovo, we aim to inspire the younger generation and empower them to transform the future using technology.

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

I got some great advice from an executive coach, which is to stop and think ‘Is it worth it?’ before speaking. As a leader, when you talk, in essence you’re issuing an order. Doesn’t matter if your feedback is brilliant or stupid… it’s going to be an order. Instead, just stop and think to yourself — is what I’m about to say going to add value, or is it going to derail or demoralize the person you’re speaking to? Chances are, you may realize that it’s just best to keep listening and not try to overengineer the conversation.

Thank you for these great insights!

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