…Make sure to have a call with everyone at least twice a week. If there is a project that everyone can contribute to, even if it would normally be only one teammate’s responsibility, try to include everyone in it as long as it is still relevant to their position. Also, try to ask your team to share personal stories as well as work plans. I find that after weekends and holidays there is always something fun to share, even if it’s just how weird a 3-person Thanksgiving was.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dina Orenbach.
Dina Orenbach is the Consul and Director of the Western Region of the United States for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, which is based in Los Angeles. In 2020, despite the challenging world circumstances, she accepted the position of Consul-Director to the Western Region and moved her family across the globe to be on the ground in the effort to help tourism recover in the post-Covid world in this important market for Israel. Having immigrated to Israel as a child, Orenbach has always been passionate about sharing the wonders of her country with the world at large — particularly through tourism.
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”?
After finishing my BA in Management and Communication, all my closest friends started to work in marketing departments at various organizations. I felt that I needed to work with people in a more “down to earth” environment, so I joined a human resources company as a recruiter. I liked the work and atmosphere but kept feeling that it was not actually the path for me. I then set out to land a job in marketing, but it was very important to me that it have some sort of added value to society. It was during this time my husband told me he had seen an online ad from The Israel Ministry of Tourism; they were opening a cadets’ course that would train individuals to work in the marketing administration which promotes tourism to Israel from around the world. I applied and fortunately I got in! I had never considered the public sector before- but this opportunity felt too good to be true! I’d be working in marketing like I wanted, but my focus would be on selling the wonderful product of Israel. I always believed being a tourist in Israel to be a unique experience, and I find helping to bring the wonder of my country to the outside world to be beyond meaningful. Now, 5 years after I started at the Ministry, I find that all my hard work has led me to the role of Consul-Director of our West Coast office in Los Angeles.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I started my position in September, and I have 3 wonderful people on my team. They have all been working from home since the pandemic started seeing as the office is in Los Angeles. One day, I was having a Zoom call with Megan, our PR Director, as we do every week when a thought struck me. We have gotten to know each other fairly well since I arrived, but suddenly I realized that I have never met her in person which is slightly ridiculous since I feel like we have known each other for so long! These are certainly strange times we are living in when one doesn’t even know the height of one’s co-workers…
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 not a specific event, but an ongoing fact of life that is incredibly familiar to anyone working in an organization that has multiple offices around the globe- time zones. To give some context to why it is particularly perplexing to me, I must point out, Israel is a small nation with only one time zone. We don’t grow up having to think about this in the same way that Americans do, so it has taken me a while to get used to it. This has naturally resulted in a number of funny mistakes over the past few months.
Now, Israel and Los Angeles are in wildly different time zones- 10 hours separate the two. After I started working in L.A., I found myself often being woken up in the middle of the night, because people back home had forgotten about the time difference and would call me to ask little things at the strangest of hours. Sometimes I have even found myself making that same mistake with our US team back in Jerusalem. Furthermore, when I first started, I used to call my colleagues in New York long after the working day had ended for them, which they fortunately have forgiven me for (maybe because I’m the one who has to get up at 7am for our international Director meetings).
The lesson I’ve taken from all of this is that I have to plan my time effectively if I want to have meaningful and productive communication with my colleagues around the world. For instance, I now make sure that if I have an important email that I need our headquarters to see first thing in the morning, I write it up at the end of my workday so it can be sent right before I go to sleep. It’s not something easy, but the positive impact it has on work dynamic and project flow is immense.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
You should always share the results of your team’s efforts, even when the work being reviewed is something more mundane. I believe that when you are able to qualify and quantify your successes, even the little ones, it improves the way you evaluate the process you used to complete them, which ultimately helps you make improvements in all workflows.
Furthermore, try to pay attention to your employees’ emotional and mental states and strive to create an environment where they feel comfortable sharing when something is wrong. If they know you are someone interested in their wellbeing, when they feel burned out, they will know they can reach out to you. Instead of having to guess if there’s a problem, you’ll be able to address the matter at a time when you can have the most meaningful impact.
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?
At the Israel Ministry of Tourism, we traditionally work in an office. This is true for our headquarters in Israel, as well as our offices around the world. Prior to managing the office here in the U.S., I worked at what we call “the European desk”. To summarize, my job was to work with our teams in 5 different countries across Europe, meaning that although I worked in a building with other employees of the Ministry, my main focus was on my remote co-workers. I did this type of work for 2 years, and believe it or not, I did it without ever having a single Zoom call!
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team here in Los Angeles has been working remotely for the past 10 months. My experience at the European desk was essential in helping me to manage a smooth transition of power from the previous Consul-Director to myself in this type of situation. I do sincerely hope, though, that when things improve, we are able to move back to our more normal work environment.
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?
- Creating a bond within the team — Without the small moments of sharing a quick coffee together or casually discussing your weekend plans as you warm up your lunch, it is difficult to find ways to connect all the team members with one another.
- Time management — Projects end up taking longer because your staff is not right next to you for all the little things that inevitably come up. For instance, to ask a follow up question you need to either begin texting or schedule a phone or video call, whereas if we were working in the office, I would just go to the next room, which is much faster.
- Miscommunication — A lot of social cues, like eye contact, are lost in emails, texts, and calls, so sometimes you can miss the small things that you might have noticed in an in-person environment. I find especially with texts and emails that the intention and meaning of a message can get lost or it can get interpreted in entirely the wrong way because the medium is so context-less.
- Harder to develop a personal relationship — I think it’s important to foster these with your employees, a connection beyond a purely professional one. I find this to be especially true for me seeing as I am a new manager for my team with the added bonus of being the most culturally “foreign” as most of the team is American or Israelis who have lived in the U.S. for many years. Although many people dislike small talk, I find it to be really integral to deepening relationships. The absence of it has been markedly strange over the past few months for me.
- Different working environments — Each teammate has a different setting at home, which undoubtedly affects their work. Something even as basic as what time we all take off for lunch becomes an idiosyncratic event as everyone’s situation pulls them in different directions. At best, this only impacts the speed at which activities are completed. At worst, it could impact the quality of a team member’s contributions.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
- Creating a bond within the team — Make sure to have a call with everyone at least twice a week. If there is a project that everyone can contribute to, even if it would normally be only one teammate’s responsibility, try to include everyone in it as long as it is still relevant to their position. Also, try to ask your team to share personal stories as well as work plans. I find that after weekends and holidays there is always something fun to share, even if it’s just how weird a 3-person Thanksgiving was.
- Time management — Try to write down all the things you want to address before any call you have to ensure you make the most of that conversation. Since you can’t just casually get a hold of any of your staff, it is imperative that you be as streamlined as possible.
- Miscommunication — Be as clear as you can when writing an email or a text, and absolutely review it before sending. Whenever you speak to people, make sure to check if they saw all your messages and ask if there are any questions. If you feel like something was misunderstood, just pick up the phone and call the relevant person. The sooner the better!
- Harder to develop a personal relationship — Try to show real interest in your employees’ lives outside of work. Even small questions make a difference in a working dynamic. I think it’s key to initiate this kind of dialogue both in formal meetings and conversations and by scheduling time for more informal gatherings as well.
- Different working environments — Be patient and try to understand that every situation is different. Some people have their kids at home all day, some have bad cell reception, and some need to work strange hours. There are a myriad of different circumstances, and your team will be more motivated to make theirs work if they know you as the manager are supporting them however you can.
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?
That’s a hard one! I think that remote or not, nobody likes to hear criticism- even if you make it clear that it’s only constructive and not some kind of personal attack. Being remote only adds another difficulty to an already complex process, because it’s so much harder to understand and follow up on the response to your feedback.
Because it’s hard to do even in normal circumstances, I think it’s best to be very clear as to when something is bothering you as a manager and say it right away. The longer you wait, the more of an issue it might become, which means there will just be more you will have to say when you do come around to it. If you address it as soon as it starts being a problem, the more likely it is that the message you want to deliver will be shorter, which inherently makes it easier to digest.
Also, always try to acknowledge the fact that you know these are strange and difficult times for everyone and add in any other message you know will put your employee at ease. If you keep the dialogue relaxed and upbeat, it is less likely that the individual will become defensive and unreceptive to what you are trying to communicate.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
The general advice I’ve always followed is to express the criticism between two positive feedbacks, which some people call the Oreo cookie method. This is a structure that can be adhered to just as easily in email as it is in a real-life conversation. I also think it is essential to give your employee some tools or practices to use for improving. If you have a good relationship with them, you might even be able to just ask the individual what they think they might need to do to improve things.
However, if at all possible, just don’t do it over email in the first place. No matter how difficult it is to schedule, I would rather do it over a video call seeing as you can at least see the other person’s face and hear the tone of their voice. In either case, make sure to state your points clearly, otherwise you are doomed to repeat them because you weren’t understood properly. Be as specific as possible, and don’t beat around the bush. Say what you want to say, it is what it is (as we’ve all gotten very used to saying during this pandemic).
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 takes real effort to find the best practices for working at home when you’ve never done it before. Step one is to always take care of the most basic element- space. Have a room, or at least a desk, that serves as your “office”. Then remember that all your teammates are in a similar position, so you are not alone in your struggles or in the pursuit of making the situation more manageable.
As a manager, if you notice someone is finding the new routine difficult, it’s best to ask directly how you can assist them. It might even be helpful to bring this up in a team meeting, as other employees might have useful tips if this setup comes more naturally to them. Strive to avoid intense micromanagement, it will only end up damaging any trust you’ve built with your employees. You need to remember that things are obviously getting done, and once they have been given the space to adapt, they will inevitably be able to be as successful in this new environment as they were previously.
Remember that one day this will be over, and we will return to working together in an office; however, I imagine that the remote way will be preserved at least partially. Try to use this not only as a learning experience, but a chance to gather real data and opinions to manage it successfully in the future. Finally, remember what was positive about this so that later on when we return to the office, you can try to bring whatever that is into the face-to-face environment.
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?
I try to give my team as much support and freedom to promote projects and tasks as I can. I strive to give them a sense that I trust them and count on them- which I absolutely do! I think if a person is growing and has positive feelings at work this leads to them wanting to achieve the shared goals of the organization and possess a greater sense of accountability for their part in that process. Furthermore, in general, it helps people care more about their colleagues and their work environment.
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 would focus on a movement in education, specifically education that is centered on learning about other cultures and places in the world. Not only studying world history and cultures from the past, but also exploring other cultures that exist now around the globe. Although the world is getting ‘smaller’ in the age of the internet and supposedly people can get all the information they want about other places, cultures, and countries easily, I think that it needs to be a bigger part of early education, so people grow up understanding the great diversity of this planet. It is something that can only serve to further connect us all, making us simultaneously more curious and tolerant of others. Furthermore, in our increasingly globalized workplaces, an international perspective is essential for understanding both one’s coworkers and clientele.
This type of education would also naturally serve as an excellent motivator for travel. It is one thing to read about something but getting to go explore it firsthand is quite another. Israel and so many other destinations are filled with wonderful places, cities, food, history, and nature just waiting to be experienced. If we can instill in people from an early age the courage and interest it takes to go out and be a part of it, ignorance to others will consequently become a notion of the past. It is infinitely harder to hate someone or make someone an “other” if you have met them and seen their unique way of life, which is the grandest goal of those in the travel industry in my opinion.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Marshall McLuhan was one of the first professors and philosophers we studied in my communications courses. In my opinion, a standout quote from him is, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” The original intent of this message was to focus on how technology is oriented and how it changes our behavior as a result. I love it and I think that it’s very relevant for humanity, particularly in the past few decades. It is amazing that we live in times where we can see change happening right in front of us and its immediate effect on the world and society. Regardless of it is for better or worse, the key is to have an awareness of these processes that are constantly evolving and adapting.
Of course, technology’s ubiquitous impact our lives makes it very relevant to the world of travel! Travel and the way we experience it is just one of the many things that has changed drastically as a result of technological progress and the many tools we shaped for it. It is always interesting and challenging to see how we can further adapt to make travel better in the everchanging technological sphere.
Thank you for these great insights!