Dr. Penny Pullan: “Lack of clear sight of each other”

Be kind. This applies to yourself as much as to your staff! I think that founders are often really tough on themselves, working very long hours with few breaks. It seems that there is too much at stake, but in reality, you do your best work when refreshed and able to think clearly. I had the […]

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Be kind. This applies to yourself as much as to your staff! I think that founders are often really tough on themselves, working very long hours with few breaks. It seems that there is too much at stake, but in reality, you do your best work when refreshed and able to think clearly.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Penny Pullan.

Dr Penny Pullan is an expert in virtual and hybrid working, with nineteen years’ experience of both. The author of ‘Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams’, Penny is a director of MakingProjectsWork.co.uk. Penny helps companies and individuals to become better virtual leaders. Her book is available here.


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”?

Thank you for inviting me!

As a child, I lived all over the world and became familiar with diverse cultures on three different continents. On returning to England for secondary schooling, I kept in touch with my best friend Susan through handwritten letters. There was no Facebook or Instagram then!

I met my husband on the Cambridge University mainframe computer, called Phoenix, when we were both graduate students. We did meet in person a few weeks later! It seems that a lot of my early experiences were really helpful for the work I do now — helping people to be effective in virtual and hybrid teams.

After finishing my PhD, I moved across to industry, working in consulting, pharma and then joined Mars Inc for ten years before founding my own consultancy Making Projects Work Ltd over a decade ago.

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

I was invited to run my first ever global programme of change, which was really exciting! My bags were packed, my tickets were ready and I was set to fly to New York. There I was due to spend two weeks at the kick-off meeting for the programme, with all the key people from around the world. Everyone was flying in. What could possibly go wrong?

The date on my ticket was 13th September 2001. Two days before, the 9/11 tragedy happened. We were all grounded! None of us could fly for three months, yet the programme had to go ahead. We had conference call technology and chat, but could only see each other if we managed to book out the video conferencing suite, which was usually booked solid by senior managers.

Despite all of these problems, it worked. This was my introduction to virtual leadership and, luckily for our programme, I took to it. I tapped deep into my knowledge of group dynamics and facilitation, and adapted things for this new environment. Perhaps the experience of writing to Susan for more than a decade and also getting to know my now-husband virtually helped?

Soon I was helping others to work and lead virtually within Mars Inc. When I left to start my own consultancy, I found that there were many other multinational companies who also needed support with virtual leadership.

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?

In one of my very first conference calls, everything was going well. We had a particularly tricky action to get done and, to my delight, someone said: ‘I’ll take that one!’ We had a big group and I didn’t know everyone’s voices. In my relief that the action had been taken, I forgot to find out who had been speaking at the time. After the meeting, I had no idea who had offered. I waited, hoping that they would do the action. No-one did and it was even trickier to get someone do take it up in the next meeting!

As a result of this, I always ask people to state their name at the start of everything they say in audio conference calls. This simple step means that I can never be in that tricky situation again!

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

Be kind. This applies to yourself as much as to your staff! I think that founders are often really tough on themselves, working very long hours with few breaks. It seems that there is too much at stake, but in reality, you do your best work when refreshed and able to think clearly.

Agree work packages with people, agree how they will report progress and get out of the way, unless they request support the employee. This works beautifully virtually, just as it does in the office!

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 was catapulted into leading a virtual team by 9/11, so it is coming up to 19 years that I’ve been working with virtual and hybrid teams. It seems to be perfectly placed to help out those for whom March 2020 was their first experience of going virtual and those who will be returning to a hybrid experience, with some in the office and some virtual. I’ve had the luxury of time to think through all of this over many years and to find out what really works across industries. A couple of years ago, I pulled all of this thinking and experience together into my book: ‘Virtual Leadership: Practical Strategies for Getting the Best Out of Virtual Work and Virtual Teams’ which has become a bestseller in the pandemic. Readers can get a copy at www.koganpage.com

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 some of the main challenges are regarding managing a remote team? Can you give a story or example for each?

There are so many challenges! I’ve already focused on a few, so I’ll add these five:

Lack of clear sight of each other

You can’t see team members by glancing over in their direction. If they appear at all, it’s in meetings where each person is in a little box, which can get very small indeed if there are large numbers of people. The nuances and dynamics of conversation often get lost. If people are quiet in a meeting, they tend to appear even less. They could be drifting off to sleep. Or nodding in agreement. Or waving their fists at the screen. You just don’t know. Conflict is hard to detect and hard to fix.

The fix

Don’t just rely on team meetings to keep in touch with each person. Arrange one-to-one meetings where you can really tap into each person’s thoughts and feelings. This is how you can pick up conflict and then work to manage it, as well as keeping a good relationship going when you can’t meet up in person.

Your sensory input is limited

As humans, we are designed to perceive our world with five senses. In remote teams, we have at most two senses in meetings, sight and sound, and sometimes only one. It’s very easy to be distracted by things around you that you can touch, or taste, or smell.

The fix

One way of bringing the team tangibly into each person’s workspace is to create a physical team map. To create one, place a headshot of each person in your team (with permission of course) into a diagram and print it out in colour. You can even laminate it to make it sturdier.

To bring in the senses of taste, touch and smell, why not arrange a postal delivery of some goodies to everyone in your team for a team event? You could even adjust the contents to suit each person’s preferences, as one team did and everyone felt really cared for. Cocktails and nibbles for team drinks perhaps?

It’s so easy to get things muddled!

People crave clarity, but this is even harder to provide for virtual teams. Because of this, it takes longer to prepare for a remote team meeting than for an in-person meeting, to make sure you provide this clarity. It’s easy to get the wrong end of the stick.

The fix

Be very, very clear. You probably need to be even clearer than you think you need to be! When preparing for meetings, make sure that these questions have clear answers, and start your meeting going through each one:

  • What is the purpose of the meeting?
  • What are the objectives of the meeting?
  • What is the time plan?
  • Who is doing what?
  • How will we work together and what are our ‘ground rules’?
  • What will happen next?

Most virtual meetings are very, very tedious!

People disengage and then look at their email or even social media instead of concentrating and focusing on the team meeting. An example which happens all the time is a team member, when asked a question, coming back with: “Could you just repeat the question?” It’s a clear indication that they were not paying attention! With long days of video meetings, you’re even more likely to lose people’s attention.

The fix

There are many ways to engage people in virtual meetings. My Virtual Leadership book covers ten of them, but we don’t have enough space to go into these in detail. Instead, let’s take three:

  • Tell stories and use a narrative style to hook people in and keep them listening.
  • Remove most of the words from any slides you use and instead use simple visuals. It’s even better if you can draw live in the virtual session!
  • Use good video so that people can see each other’s faces.

If people are working long days of video meetings, they won’t be engaged, so consider how to shift work from constant video meetings to a smaller number of meetings combined with effective, asynchronous work, using collaboration tools to share work done.

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?

Definitely don’t do this by email! (See the next answer.) You need a certain level of richness in communication so that you are picking up as much as you can of the vocal tone, facial expressions and body language of your team member, and they yours. Try the phone instead if that suits them or join a one-to-one video call.

Don’t use the ‘good thing, bad thing, good thing’ sandwich. People then tend to get worried if you ever give praise! Here are two alternatives: 1. Ask them what they think and listen well. It may be that they are already aware of the issue and trying to work on it. 2. Always ask: “What went well?” Then, instead of asking: “What went wrong?”, try a question that looks forward, such as: “What do you wish would happen next time?” Listen hard and then give your own perspective.

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

One word: don’t! If this is feedback that might be difficult to hear, don’t do it by email. It’s not rich enough as a feedback mechanism. You have no control over how your employee will read e-mail or what colour or nuance they will read into it. Instead, pick up the phone or jump on a video call. Either of these will be far richer than an e-mail.

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?

In many ways, you are in a good position if you are used to one another before starting to work virtually. This means that you go into virtual working with good relationships, rapport, common ground and trust. This is a great foundation.

One obstacle that I noticed early on was that many teams thought that virtual working meant being on live video meetings almost all day. Some people were on video calls from 8am to 8pm, and that’s just not productive. It helps to work out your team norms together — how you’ll communicate with each other, taking into account each person’s preferences. This will consider too how you’ll mix synchronous meetings (live ones, at the same time) with asynchronous working (when you work together at different times, using collaboration tools).

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?

Everyone in the team should step up to develop their own virtual leadership — yes, it’s not just needed by the designated team leader! This means that everyone will be looking out for the rest of the team and helping them to deliver the best that they can. What a supportive way to work together, virtual, but not distant!

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

My movement would be that leaders become facilitators of their teams, even after the pandemic — doing what it takes to make it easy for team members to do the best job that they can. This taps into ideas from servant leadership and it works really well virtually, as well as when people are together.

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

“If you think you are too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito” (African proverb) It’s very easy to assume that there is nothing that you can do to change things and that the system in place is too powerful to change. But, if you have ever been in bed with a mosquito, you’ll know that something very small can make something very big get up and jump around, and go a bit crazy!

Let’s all work to make a difference, however small we might feel we are.

How can our readers further follow your work?

Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/pennypullan/

Twitter: twitter.com/pennypullan

Email: penny @ makingprojectswork.co.uk

Website: www.makingprojectswork.co.uk

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