Ask how your team prefers to communicate. Yes we’re remote, but that’s only removed one type of communication: face to face. We still have email, text, video calls, intranet, voice calls, internal channels like Slack — plenty of ways to communicate. And there isn’t one perfect solution, so ask your team how they want to communicate. Does a 10-minute video stand up every morning suit everyone — or would they prefer a text check in around midday with any blockers? Don’t just assume a video call has to be used for everything!
We are living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?
In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Perkins, Chief Brand Officer at Epro. A storyteller almost from birth, Emily has worked with some of the world’s largest tech companies, including Samsung, Beats, B&O Play, and many more. She leads Marketing and Branding at Epro, a clinically-led digital solution for healthcare professionals and organizations
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My parents have been going through the copious paperwork in their loft, and came across a bundle of my school reports. Even from the age of five, my teachers were noticing my desire to tell stories — in the best way possible! I still have some of the stories I wrote from when I was about seven (nothing groundbreaking, I’m afraid), and I grew up desperate to ‘live by my pen’, as Jane Austen once said.
And to date, I have been successful! After university I freelanced as a copywriter and editor, and then entered the more traditional workforce as a copywriter, rising up to be Chief Brand Officer at Epro within five years.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
One of the joys of building a brand is that you can do that for an individual, a company, or both. In one of my previous roles, I was fortunate enough to work with a prolific and exceptional scientist who was essentially unknown within the media due only to a lack of access. I worked closely with her to examine and redefine her brand with the purpose of attracting the media, and landed her a live BBC interview with my first pitch.
The segment was going to be filmed within an hour. A crash course in media training over the phone (which I don’t recommend, in normal circumstances!), and my client was on BBC Victoria Derbyshire, speaking on the importance of environmental factors when considering business rates.
All in a day’s work!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Mind how you go.”
It may not mean much by itself, but it’s a family farewell that encapsulates the myriad of emotions on departing. I don’t wish to leave you, but I understand you have to go. Stay safe until we meet again. A phrase that has gained importance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My parents have been and continue to be a huge influence on me. They never restricted my world view of what I could be or what I could do, and encouraged me in everything I attempted — even if it crashed and burned!
I think it’s because of them that I approach most challenges with the view that it can be beaten: I just have to work out how. That’s a huge advantage, and I owe it all to them.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different than working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?
Being in the same physical space as someone changes something radically about the way we communicate. Not only can we see a person’s entire body language (which by some estimates is up to 93% of our communication), but we can better understand a person’s emotional mood.
But it goes beyond that! We can hug, high five, share a cup of coffee, read a newspaper together and discuss things one wouldn’t feel comfortable doing over a video connection.
We can walk together. Eat lunch together. Science tells us that physical activity improves our ability to solve problems, and there is a sense of togetherness and ‘us against the problem’ that is most tangible when together.
On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?
I think 2020 has taught each of us our personal bugbears about not being physically together when trying to work as a team, and I think much of that is dictated by your personality type and your job role.
For extroverted creatives like myself, the idea of going through a day without speaking to someone is abhorrent. I’ve organised Google Hangout drop ins and shared the link internally, as a place for anyone else desperate to speak to someone about something non-work related to chat with me.
But that doesn’t mean that introverts or those who work in more scientific, technology-based industries don’t suffer in equal measure, but in different ways. It’s difficult to debug code as a group, or suggest new support structures, or whiteboard a new network pattern…when you’re hundreds of miles apart.
Lastly, there’s something especially nuanced about critical conversations that doesn’t translate easily to video or voice call. When you need to tell a colleague that their last piece of work needs some serious work; when a junior person needs to be informed their application for a higher position wasn’t successful; when a contract isn’t renewed…
All these conversations are strenuous enough in person, but are made far more difficult when remote.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space ? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Acknowledge that this isn’t a perfect situation.
By making it clear to your team that you recognize this is not the circumstance that you would choose, people feel more comfortable. Doorbell rings during a work call, child wanders into the room, signal suddenly drops? If you have a workplace that acknowledges that these things might happen — and that it’s okay — you’ll massively reduce the stress your team members will feel, helping them to approach work with a cool head.
2. Ask how your team prefers to communicate.
Yes we’re remote, but that’s only removed one type of communication: face to face. We still have email, text, video calls, intranet, voice calls, internal channels like Slack — plenty of ways to communicate. And there isn’t one perfect solution, so ask your team how they want to communicate. Does a 10-minute video stand up every morning suit everyone — or would they prefer a text check in around midday with any blockers? Don’t just assume a video call has to be used for everything!
3. Be prepared to iterate.
Whether your team has been working remotely since the beginning of the pandemic, or is just starting out, there is no perfect system and whatever you create will need to be updated and refined over time. Iteration doesn’t just occur in the world of start-ups and agile development: it’s critical that you do not become wedded to one way of doing things. Always seek to improve.
4. Be more direct and clear.
When communicating between remote workers, there is no such thing as being too direct and too clear. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean rudeness or dismissiveness. I mean instead of saying, “And you’ll probably have that report ready by Friday, right?” try, “It’s important to the project that the report is complete on Friday 21st of this month. Can you commit to that timeline?”
5. Check in to ensure everyone is up to speed.
There’s nothing more frustrating than discovering someone misunderstood something two weeks ago — and now that’s just time you’ve lost. Ensure you have regular check ins, including at the end of calls, to confirm that everyone is clear on agreed actions and responsibilities, so projects and development can progress as though should.
Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?
Here at Epro, we actually transitioned to entirely remote working before the first lockdown in the UK. we’re fortunate; as a software development partner to the NHS, we’re designed to work remotely if we choose to. Technologically based on our hardware therefore, we were in a good place.
However, we have continued to iterate both our software and practices. Only in December did we move to Slack for our internal communications, and we’re still experimenting with drop in calls for product awareness and debugging.
Honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever stay still. Each new person to the team — and we’ve increased headcount by 30% in the last 12 months — brings new ideas and new ways of working.
Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
I am a huge proponent of Slack and Trello, both of which I have helped introduce to Epro since I joined in early 2020.
Slack offers a streamlined way to communicate thematically, which suits the way I work. There are also some great customisable options for a workspace, and almost everything has an API that can integrate, which is useful. Trello again works thematically; we use it by department, with a few large projects gaining their own board.
As a company, we’ve chosen to use Google Hangouts or Slack calls as our primary voice communication, which both work well. Google fits into our email, calendar, and Drive system beautifully and as each of these three systems talk to each other, it makes my life much easier!
I honestly don’t know how I could communicate effectively with my team and the company at large without these two tools.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Oh, that’s a tough one! I honestly don’t think there is one single product or solution that could do it all. We are complex creatures, communicating in a number of ways, and what works for one person would not necessarily be the best for someone else. I think we need to look at webs of solutions that come together to replicate that in-person feel.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
Definitely. There’s nothing more irritating than looking for a file in five places, and not finding it in any of them — because it was filed incorrectly in the first place you looked.
That’s one of the downsides of our multi-service communication worlds at the moment. At any given moment, a file could have been emailed, Trelloed, in the Drive, or in any number of slack channels.
That’s a real challenge when your CEO asks you to present a slidedeck in a live call!
The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?
I think eventually virtual reality will come to a point where we can feel as though we are in the same room even if we are not — but we’re not there yet.
I’m absolutely obsessed with the Uncanny Valley; the idea that just because we are able to create such lifelike robots or CGI individuals, we reach a level of accuracy that makes our brains hesitate. So close to humanity, but just far enough for us to distrust what we can see.
At the moment, most virtual reality solutions I have seen for corporate remote meetings sit firmly within the Uncanny Valley — at least for me. I’m intrigued to see when we cross that boundary.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
I don’t think I am alone in my concerns around deep fakes. The idea that someone could duplicate my face, my voice, my mannerisms, and make that CGI version of me say anything…
It turns me cold. Of course, there are wider implications for this. What prevents that deep fake taking out a loan in my name? Being used in a romance scam? Or worse?
So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?
Our only customer and our constant priority is the National Health Service (NHS) here in the UK, so as you can imagine, there have been a number of challenges that we have faced together over the last twelve months.
Our prime concern is, and always has been, to ensure the NHS can deliver the best care to its patients. When the organisation transitioned to majority Microsoft Teams for video calls we accommodated that, and we have successfully deployed EPMA to a large NHS trust entirely remotely.
We have also acted swiftly to ensure the NHS is able to communicate internally, including creating bespoke COVID-19 alerts within an hour for a large London NHS trust.
In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with 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 team member?
First, think carefully about what you want to achieve by giving this feedback. Are you giving someone the insight they need to do a better job next time? Are you yourself clear on what needs to be different going forward?
Next, put yourself in their shoes — it’s an old cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason. It is never nice to feel as though one is being ‘told off’, so consider how you would want to be spoken to in that situation.
Lastly, when the conversation comes to a close, give a piece of genuinely positive feedback and check that the person understands everything you’ve said. The last thing you want is for the call to end, and for that colleague to go away confused about what they could do to improve.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
One of the things that is easily forgotten is how the little things can make a big difference, especially for team members who might live alone. Here at Epro, our CEO is particularly good at this, whether it’s a surprise penguin arriving at 11:30pm, sending pancakes to our COO, pizza to our hardworking Head of QA during a power outage, or doughnuts to a senior developer after two years with the company — all sent in the last 3 months.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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. 🙂
Free period products in schools. The number of education hours that girls around the world lose because of period poverty is criminal. We cannot expect to close the gender pay gap and advance gender equality around the world in the workplace when girls are losing out so massively before they even finish education.
It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that needs to become a reality!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.