We never give constructive feedback over email. It’s not effective, and it’s one-sided. Always get on a video call to give feedback face to face!
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Forum Desai.
Forum Desai is the co-founder of Mismo. Along with Jinal Jhaveri, she is an entrepreneur who has built successful SaaS companies with remote teams. Mismo provides tier-1, cost-effective talent to tech companies across the United States and eliminates the administrative headaches of integrating teams. Mismo’s customers save an average of 40 to 60 percent on overall costs compared to the U.S. When a company is looking to hire, the Mismo platform will match them with pre-vetted, top-tier candidates to fill the job opening, streamline the interview and contract processes and assist with onboarding including setting up payment, benefits, compliance needs, technology infrastructure, and performance measurement. For developers and designers, Mismo provides career opportunities and everything a top talent needs to thrive while working from home.
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”?
I grew up and went to college in India then moved to Los Angeles when I was 21 to pursue a Masters in Computer Engineering. Started doing some database consulting on the side to pay for my Masters. Loved the variety of consulting, and decided to join one of the big 4 consulting firms, PwC, out of grad school. Working with Fortune 500 companies and helping them with Identity Management was super fun, until we had our first baby. The one week in Seattle, one week in Chicago lifestyle would not work anymore, so I decided to start Mismo (then LogN) in 2010.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When we started Mismo (formerly LogN) in 2010, we worked with clients in different industries — healthcare, education, tech, etc. One of our clients was a charter school network based in the Bay Area, and we built an enrollment system for them to admit kids into schools. We built it from scratch for them — it took a long time, and was expensive. However, they did not have a choice since there was no off the shelf product that would meet their needs. Soon after, we built a very similar custom system for another charter school network in Arizona. Coincidentally, at the same time, we were enrolling our first born in preschool, and experienced the super inefficient, stuck in the dark ages, manual paper-based enrollment process at her school. We already knew enrollment was a problem for schools, and now we knew it was a problem for parents too, so we decided to spin up another company out of Mismo, called SchoolMint. SchoolMint saw great success, and is currently used in tens of thousands of schools across the country, serving millions of students. We owe that success to Mismo!
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?
Whats in a name? A Lot, apparently!
We started off as a performance consulting company, and decided to cleverly name the company Log(n) — which computer nerds would understand as a way to measure the time complexity of solving an algorithm. We registered the company, built the website, setup emails and got going! Soon we realized that we were not getting a lot of emails that our customers and prospects were sending us. We scratched our heads for a while, and then found that it was because people thought that logn.com was a typo, and were sending emails to the login.com domain instead. Also, we found that that including special characters like the () in the legal name of the company posed all kinds of challenges — we did not show up in DUNS searches, our legal name did not match the name in our tax returns — all kinds of messes! Issues with the Log(n) name was one of the reasons we rebranded to Mismo. Lesson — don’t get too creative with your company’s name — keep it simple, easy to understand and easy to pronounce!
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Burnout is real — we’ve seen it too frequently, and lost a few rockstars to it! We’ve found that the best way to avoid burnout, even in high pressure, demanding situations is to give employees the time, space and flexibility to do things that are important to them to balance their work-life. Our remote teams are in Latin America, and we have learned a lot from our employees themselves on how to avoid burnout! For example, soccer is very important to a lot of our engineers in Costa Rica, and we found that giving them the flexibility to take a break at 5 PM to go play soccer even when facing a very tight deadline meant that they would get back, and grind till midnight without feeling burnt out. Another example, we have a lot of engineers with young kids, and giving them the freedom to take on a flexible schedule really helps. Stop work at 4 PM, take the kids to the park, have dinner and family time, and then return to work after the kids go to bed. Having the flexibility to do the things that are important to them, even when working long hours really helps!
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?
We were remote from day one — so 10+ 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?
- Challenges with infrastructure, especially when working with teams in developing countries.
- Communication challenges — a quick live conversation with your co-worker sitting next to you is different from a Slack conversation
- Reduced visibility into day-to-day morale of team members
- Ability to form close bonds with someone you have not met in person
- Providing visibility into the company vision, priorities, urgency, etc.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
- Challenges with infrastructure, especially when working with teams in developing countries. This one is easy — reimburse your remote employees for the infrastructure costs so they can get top-of-the-line internet, have backup power supply, high quality headphones, etc.
- Communication challenges — a quick live conversation with your co-worker sitting next to you is different from a Slack conversation. This is a bit harder. How we solve this very effectively is making it super easy to have a face-to-face conversation — just like it is to turn around to talk to a co-worker. We heavily use Zoom, and make it easy to launch a Zoom call with integrations with Slack, so that even if it’s a quick question, our team gets on a two-minute Zoom call to talk through it quickly, face-to-face.
- Reduced visibility into day-to-day morale of team members. Once again, Zoom to the rescue! Managers have weekly quick check-ins with their reports to see how things are going. They specifically don’t talk about technical stuff, or project-related stuff, but mostly about how they are doing overall — what they are struggling with, what they are looking forward to, etc.
- Ability to form close bonds with someone you have not met in person. We use a lot of Slack connectivity tools like donut (randomly pairs two co-workers for a 15 minute ‘coffee’ every week), water cooler channels, karma (to give kudos to co-workers), etc. I have to say — it’s still not the same as meeting in person, so we actively look for opportunities to do just that. At least once a year (in non-pandemic years, haha), we get the team together for a few days so that they can bond in person.
- Providing visibility into the company vision, priorities, urgency etc. We solve for this by a lot of communication from the leadership team. We do monthly all-hands, and smaller team-by team chats with the leadership team. We’re very thoughtful about communicating not just what our priorities are and what needs to be done, but why they are our priorities, and why we need to do it!
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?
Well, giving constructive criticism is hard no matter what. However, I dont think it’s all that different when given remotely. I think we can pick up a lot of body language and facial expressions over Zoom as well. Overall, we always give constructive criticism as plainly, and matter of factly as possible. We don’t sugarcoat and we never dole out shit sandwiches! We always give constructive feedback from the context of helping the employee improve, and it usually works well.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
We *never* give constructive feedback over email. It’s not effective, and it’s one-sided. Always get on a video call to give feedback face to face!
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?
3 suggestions –
- Slack and Zoom are your best friends! It may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people hesitate to get on a quick call to discuss a question. Once you break that inhibition, communication flows much more freely.
- Make sure you take breaks and set boundaries between work and personal time.
- Most of all, cut yourselves and your co-workers some slack. It’s an unprecedented situation, and a sudden change — so give yourself time to adjust!
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?
The most important thing is to remember: we are human, we need social connection. We need to make sure to build fun and socialization into our remote schedules so that our team members get to know each other on a personal level, so there is more empathy and compassion for the team as a whole. There are some great virtual, group activities that can be done like Zoom happy hours, Jackbox games with groups, or simply singing Happy Birthday together via Zoom to a coworker. It’s easy for people to become more introverted and get a little lost in a remote setting, we have to encourage fun, social interaction and camaraderie to maintain a healthy and empowering work culture.
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. 🙂
“No-code for Kids” — Schools do a fairly good job of teaching traditional computer science to kids. However, I think learning coding in C++ does not do much for them, at least in the short term. I think we should revolutionize CS education in schools, and start teaching no-code-tools like airtable, stacker and bubble. It would give middle and high school students a real shot at building a system end-to-end, that can be used in real businesses. Upwork can then take the place of mowing lawns or working at McDonalds to give kids a real shot at buying their first car at 16 with money they earned themselves!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Execution is everything.” John Doerr
I truly believe that if you are willing to execute the hell out of a problem, you’ll always find a solution. Vision, planning, strategy is all good, but execution trumps everything! This is reflected in one of our core values “Get S#!t done”
Thank you for these great insights!