Be understanding. A kid is going to walk in. Dogs are going to bark. Someone will forget to unmute. You’ll hear someone’s spouse in the other room. One of our employees’ wives is a teacher, and the two share a small apartment. We could hear his wife teaching math in the background. A distraction? Sure. But it was funny and we had a laugh and moved on. (And then bought better headphones for him.) We’re in this world together and you can’t fault anyone when something like that happens.
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 Gil Friedrich.
Gil Friedrich brings more than 18 years of development and leadership experience to Avanan. As CEO, Friedrich has overseen rapid growth and a major paradigm shift in the cybersecurity market. Beforehand, Gil served as ForeScout’s VP of R&D and VP of Technology, expanding the company’s technology into mobile security, BYOD policy, and Cloud services. He holds a B.Sc. in Physics and an M.Sc. in Computer Science from Tel-Aviv University.
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?
Sure. All of the founders were working together in a successful Network Security company that was helping companies secure their internal network. And in more and more of our discussions with customers, a theme kept coming up: “We love the technology but we’re moving to the cloud and SaaS.” And the question that kept coming was, how do I implement your technologies in the cloud? As we looked at what the other vendors were doing, we saw that most of them were basically trying to adapt their old technology to the cloud, coming up with cumbersome proxy architectures, while we believed that the future is in API and cloud-to-cloud connectivity. Fast forward, and what started as a niche is becoming more and more the mainstream of how customers expect to secure their email and collaboration suites.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Well, now it might sound interesting or funny but at the time it was pretty stressful! In a previous company, one evening I got a call from one of our field engineers that we were having a problem at the FAA, which was one of our customers, and asked if I can jump on a call in 30 minutes. It was already 9 pm so it sounded urgent. I said of course, and while waiting looked at the news and saw that due to a computer malfunction the FAA’s ticketing systems were not working and millions of people across the U.S. are stuck in airports. I immediately thought “what have we done?!” and reached out to the field engineer with a link to the news story asking if this was us. He quickly responded with ‘Yes’ and I had an intense 30 minutes until I learned it was completely unrelated and our issue was a minor single laptop problem. The engineer just decided to mess with me. I remembered those 30 minutes and he was one of our first hires at Avanan!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
What makes you happy are your good life experiences but what makes you stronger are the bad ones. In a start-up, you’ll condense many of both of these for a short period of time, and you need to get the best out of both.
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?
There are many of course, but if there’s one person that has been extremely crucial for my growth as CEO at Avanan, then it’s our CRO, Don Byrne. He taught me everything I know about sales and marketing. All my experience was engineering and he could have just built the sales organization as he found fit, but instead, he took me along the journey, we went through the thought process, we trialed and erred as we were searching for the path, and in the end, he helped me become his “counterpart” to brainstorm and get feedback, and to come up with the best plan. This journey, I think, made us a great team.
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?
GF: There’s certainly tons of advantages. You don’t have to worry about bad internet at home; you get a different, in-person spark to a brainstorming meeting, an easier way to bounce ideas and to spark new ones. Onboarding employees is so much easier and faster. And creating a culture is certainly easier. Groups of people can walk to lunch or to coffee and bond. And there’s just this different energy when we’re all together in the same place. But it’s not all perfect. When working remotely, it leaves more time in the day for family and home-related activities and it also allows to break the working hours into segments so that you can also help at home, have lunch with the kids, etc. The work itself, some aspects of it, is more efficient. Communicating online in short sessions means it’s easier to share ideas in apps like Slack, get others’ feedback, jump on a quick Zoom, etc. We’ve seen that in some cases the path from idea to fully formed direction worked a lot faster.
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?
GF: It’s hard to beat the proximity and collaboration potential of working physically together. If there’s an issue, big or small, it’s a lot easier to walk to someone’s desk and hash it out, rather than wait for someone to respond to a Slack message or get off a Zoom call. Additionally, it’s a lot easier for departments that might not otherwise work together to meet and collaborate, whether it’s getting a coffee or just chatting. That leads to better team cohesion and it could foster ideas down the line. We saw some challenges with our R&D team, which is primarily based in Israel. In general, many Israelis live in small, city apartments. For those who had kids, the tight quarters made things more difficult. Additionally, so much of R&D work revolves around teamwork and whiteboard brainstorming sessions. That’s something that’s been hard to replicate.
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.)
GF: 1. Over update and be open. When everyone is remote, it’s imperative to share status updates more frequently with your team. We’ve had more company-wide meetings as we transitioned to virtual. In those meetings, we’ve shared much more than before. This was important because in remote work some of the connection between the employee and the company is lost. To see everyone helps in that respect. It was also important at the height of the pandemic to provide some certainty that the company is doing well, how we are adapting, etc. Basically, reconnect with everyone and make them part of the change.
2. Be flexible. People’s work environments and work habits are now very diverse. Everyone has a different setup and responds at different rates. So it’s incumbent to understand that and practice patience in the communication — not everything can be immediate, some people cannot talk and prefer chat, some cannot open the video, some work at non-traditional hours. To make it all work for everyone, we needed to be much more patient and flexible with each other.
3. Be understanding. A kid is going to walk in. Dogs are going to bark. Someone will forget to unmute. You’ll hear someone’s spouse in the other room. One of our employees’ wives is a teacher, and the two share a small apartment. We could hear his wife teaching math in the background. A distraction? Sure. But it was funny and we had a laugh and moved on. (And then bought better headphones for him.) We’re in this world together and you can’t fault anyone when something like that happens.
4. Listen. It sounds simple, but when there are so many distractions, so many notifications buzzing, so many things needing answers, it can be really tricky. When you’re talking with employees, with customers, with partners, listening to what they’re saying and really ingesting it is more important than ever. It’s easy to miss things and it’s even easier to miss the tone. Actively listening is probably the best way to combat that.
5. Have fun. It’s an odd situation, and none of us have any meaningful experience with it. So you have to embrace what comes. One time, I was on a Zoom while the rest of my family was enjoying chocolate cake for my daughter’s birthday. When a slice of cake was brought in for me, I couldn’t say no. So we paused our work conversation and talked about cake for a little bit. That’s something that couldn’t happen in the office. It’s not all bad and we should remember that.
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?
GF: We were used to having some employees work partly or full-time at home. With employees in every time zone in the US, and with offices in Israel, that was a necessity. That helped ease the transition. What was different, surely, was everyone in the company working at home. One of the things that was tough to figure out was making sure everyone had the proper tools. Ensuring people had the right monitors, comfortable chairs, etc, and obviously high-bandwidth internet. By and large, however, we transitioned seamlessly. I think it’s because we had some experience being a disparate workforce and we are so dedicated to our mission that we learned to quickly troubleshoot to achieve our goals.
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?
GF: No one tool replicates being in the same space. But having employees scattered across the country, as well as an office in Israel, helped us ease the transition. We were using Zoom and Slack beforehand, and so that made it easier to start using them once the pandemic hit. The best tool has probably been Zoom, and we use it every day. From one-to-one meetings, to company-wide all-hands, it’s the most efficient way to gather. Other collaborative tools, like the Google Suite, are key. We can edit documents or slide decks in real-time and see the changes as if we were using one screen. So, all the collaboration tools were there before, but their importance and our usage of them increased dramatically.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
GF: We’ve managed pretty well without a “perfect” feature, however, I think we’re also running into the limitations of each tool. The Zoom experience is not great for whiteboard brainstorming sessions and now we’re using something else. Zoom breakout rooms could also be improved. Some search capabilities lack, especially in the chat platforms (we use Slack but Teams I think is no better). There’re some challenges with integrations between the tools because we chose to have the best tool for each function and not to lock-in with Microsoft. If we used a unified platform like Microsoft 365 that might have been addressed but then we would have to compromise on tool selections. We have some teams that love Monday and some that don’t. So, in all, how all this evolves is hard to predict but the “perfect” collaboration suite is still not out there.
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?
GF: We’ve adopted unified communications via the cloud. Slack notifications move with you, you can Zoom from a car, you can access documents on-the-go. If companies didn’t have those capabilities before, I think the pandemic has made it a necessity. You need to be reachable everywhere you go. How many modes of communication you use is up to the company.
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?
GF: As a tech-nerd, I would love to see AR/VR. I’ve also tried and loved Mmhmm. At the end, though we’ve really accomplished most of our needs with Zoom and Google Hangouts. All of our gatherings are done through that app and I think part of the problem with the other technologies is that it’s a little more cumbersome to deploy or use, and so if it doesn’t provide enough value after the initial wow, it probably won’t be used. I think the immediate next step of innovation is a quick way to ad-hoc start a meeting with a group, have someone “step-out” to start another conversation and then “jump right in” — basically run multiple meetings as we do with chat but over video. The other area is security — figuring out a better way to give control without hurting the experience.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
GF: The biggest concern is the physical and emotional impact of these technologies. Basic face-to-face human interaction is not replaced and these technologies I believe make people more isolated and lonely. I can think of myself and my extended family. They are in Israel and we are in the United States, so we have not had a chance to meet each other in person for a year. Sure we Zoom, little cousins play Minecraft together instead of running outside, etc. All of these still feel like synthetic replacements to the real thing, and I don’t think that would change. The problem is that if we think the substitute is good enough, we stay with it and we lose such an important part of our human interaction.
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?
GF: It’s been a tremendous change. Beforehand, we were traveling nonstop. We were meeting prospective customers and current customers. We were going to tons of events. Now, of course, it’s all stopped. We’ve really relied on Zoom. All of our POC and trial reviews happen over Zoom. Of course, email is a huge part of that, as well. But being able to replicate some semblance of face-to-face interaction has been beneficial. And we’ve seen results — we’re able to secure deals and move customers down the pipeline in the same way. As a smaller company competing with huge companies that had feet on the ground in every territory, this has been a huge advantage to us. We saved on marketing costs, travel costs, and most importantly, our competitors lost the advantage of a resource in every location. So, in that respect, I think the pandemic increased the opportunity for pure-play SaaS companies like ours.
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?
Honestly, I can’t say I can relate to this challenge, I am very direct in a face-to-face conversation and over Zoom. I find that I need to rely on words and a clear message even when face-to-face because I don’t want to rely on interpretation. What helped me is that whatever the message is, aside from obviously being polite about it, I assume I could be wrong, so I have to listen to the other person and acknowledge my mistake quickly, if necessary. So, I think you can share an opinion or concern quickly without overthinking your word selection, be open and honest, of course polite, and be ready to stand corrected or apologize for a mistake.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
GF: That’s been tricky, especially as we’ve welcomed many new team members in 2020 and now in the beginning of 2021. We’ve done a number of things that have worked well. We’ve done numerous online happy hours. We did a fun cocktail-making event, where we sent everyone the ingredients and had an expert teach us how to make a few different drinks. For Halloween, we did a fun, themed trivia event. We also try to have fun in Slack, with a few random channels and ample sharing of funny GIFs. Finally, we have groups getting together here and there on Fridays for a quick Zoom-beer. Nothing centrally organized, just 4–5 people coming to a Zoom with a beer in their hand.
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. 🙂
One thing I would like to see change is how schools operate and what children learn. Maybe it’s because I’m from tech, but I think there needs to be much more emphasis on math, computer skills, and computer programming. Funny enough, COVID and remote schooling forced our kids to learn how to use a computer to complete complex tasks. This is the biggest, most important skill school can give them. In addition, they got to use platforms that gamify schooling and make it more fun. Finally, remote schooling can break out many of the borders drawn by poverty, it means you could have access to better schooling even if you can’t afford to live in an expensive school district. So, digitization, gamification, and breaking any socio-economic barriers, all have a huge potential to impact how schools operate to make them more accessible, enjoyable, and much more effective for all children.
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.