Dhiraj Sharma of Simpplr: “Motivating employees”

Motivating employees: Remote work doesn’t get the same buzz that we see in an office. You can’t beat the energy from ringing the gong or the laughter coming from the breakroom. I try to start every meeting letting people know about what I’m grateful for. I’ll create virtual meetups when we have genuine reasons to […]

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Motivating employees: Remote work doesn’t get the same buzz that we see in an office. You can’t beat the energy from ringing the gong or the laughter coming from the breakroom. I try to start every meeting letting people know about what I’m grateful for. I’ll create virtual meetups when we have genuine reasons to celebrate. And I’m constantly encouraging my team to reward employees and remind them why their contribution matters.


As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dhiraj Sharma, entrepreneur, technology enthusiast, and a problem solver. He is the founder and CEO of Simpplr, a provider of digital workplace solutions. Prior to Simpplr, Dhiraj founded Simplion Technologies, a cloud consulting and systems integration company based in the U.S. and India. He has spent a decade creating enterprise solutions for companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies.

LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sharmadhiraj/


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”?

Simpplr is the 3rd company I’ve started. A little over 5 years ago, Workday, an HR technology leader came to me to build a new intranet. They had evaluated the market and deemed that technology was behind the times. This was perfect timing for me because my passions around purpose and meaningful work were beginning to crystallize. So I made a deal with Workday to start Simpplr rather than simply create one custom intranet.

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

I guess my 22 year old self would be most surprised about how I’ve changed both my outlook on business and how that extends to my broader life. I’m a firm believer of the Ikigai Framework which focuses on integrating your vocation with your skills and passions. So I’ve begun to prioritize relationships relative to other business fundamentals. My 22 year old self would be shocked to find that instead of being an ambitious achiever, I’ve become a guy that meets with a spiritual advisor every morning at 5 am, that leads a spiritual group outside of work, and that goes on multi week silent retreats.

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?

I make mistakes everyday so this is a hard question. I guess one mistake I live with every day is how my company’s name, Simpplr, is not simple. We originally wanted the name to be cute with “PPL” intentionally in the middle, but the name is not simple. For the first couple years, I would misspell the company name and would have employees, customers, and board members all call me out. It wasn’t a great look.

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

Be honest to yourself and love what you do. It sounds cliche, but it’s the most important thing.

I also think it’s really important to have peers who understand your role and pressures and who are available to help without judgement. The CEO seat can be lonely.

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 been doing this for 20 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?

Getting a read: 2020 has been a tough year. Employees are fatigued and have issues outside of work. My biggest challenge is understanding how employees are doing. We do engagement surveys, try to have an open culture, support recurring “Ask Us Anything” sessions, etc. But I still don’t know how well my employees are doing and it’s constantly changing. So I’ve found you have to err on the side of caution and remember that everyone is human.

Motivating employees: Remote work doesn’t get the same buzz that we see in an office. You can’t beat the energy from ringing the gong or the laughter coming from the breakroom. I try to start every meeting letting people know about what I’m grateful for. I’ll create virtual meetups when we have genuine reasons to celebrate. And I’m constantly encouraging my team to reward employees and remind them why their contribution matters.

Communication and expectation setting: When we went fully remote in March, I noticed culture was good and employees continued to work hard. But some processes seemed harder to finish on time. I chalk that up to communication and expectation setting. You set up an operating rhythm with employees who over time align with your vision and standards. Remote work forces you to be much more explicit. And patient because misunderstandings happen.

New Hire Onboarding: You can cover up for poor processes when ambitious new employees are seated next to other employees. In a remote world, you have to proactively understand what new employees need and create feedback loops to understand what’s working.

Creating employee networks: I’ve learned that the most valuable employees are the ones who are the most connected across the organization. Just by pattern matching, this is where remote employees have always lagged behind. They don’t run into others from different departments and don’t develop the same social connections that employees do in the office. So you need to structurally address that. Make sure they travel to meet people in person, encourage cross functional team work, and give them access to collaborate outside of their domains.

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

(noted in answers above)

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?

To be constructive, it needs to be in the moment and concrete. You can’t lead your feedback sessions with phrases like “I feel” nor should you wait for an annual review to surprise them. If they provided poor work, ask them to stay on the call for a couple of minutes. Ask them for their perspective. And give concrete examples of how it could have been better.

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

Simple. If the feedback matters, pick up the phone or give it over Zoom. Email feedback should only be given to employees whom you have a strong enough rapport with and whom you have enough shared experiences that you don’t have to worry about their interpretation or reactions.

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?

Every team is really different. It’s highly dependent on their functions and their leaders. We’ve found some teams haven’t missed a beat, while others really miss the social bonds and camaraderie. So avoid a one size fits all approach and get feedback from the teams themselves. You don’t have all of the answers.

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 are a lot of tips out there. I would like to focus on transparency and communication. When employees are not informed, sometimes their own demons get the best of them. So it’s important to establish a culture (with solid processes) where every employee has clean access to critical information. If you take employee fears of being kept out of the loop, you can then genuinely work on other culture building activities (cross functional projects, virtual celebrations, employee rewards and recognition, etc.) But none of these efforts matter if your company lacks good communication.

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 every leader and every employee prioritized the importance of finding purpose and meaning in their work (while recognizing the same from their employees). We could solve a lot of problems.

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

Sorry. I don’t have one.

Thank you for these great insights!

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