Provide several communication options — Video conferencing is advantageous when calls are of a more serious nature. Performance reviews, strategy planning and target reviewing would all benefit from visual cues, nodding in agreement or disapproving head shakes. It is so much easier to understand if someone is on the same page when you can see their body language. Empathy, humour and imagination are far more difficult to convey without visuals. For the more mundane topics, Skype or Instant Messenger are perfect.
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 Jess Munday, Co-Founder and HR Lead at Custom Neon® PTY LTD. A wife and mother of two, Jess also has extensive experience in retail, sales and human resource management. Jess has now put on her entrepreneurial hat and is leading Custom Neon® toward enormous success!
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?
Back in 2018 I was on the hunt for a neon sign to hang in my son’s nursery. I wanted something that was inexpensive, customisable, high quality and completely child safe. Surprisingly, it was so hard to find a neon sign that ticked all the boxes! So, I decided to contact manufacturers directly. I went on to source another sign, this time for my wedding, and then hired them out for other people to use. This is when I realised a gap in the market for accessible, creative and affordable LED neon signs. And now, what was once a small side hustle that helped me whilst on maternity leave, has become a loved and trusted brand throughout the world!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I have to say; the most interesting story was the serendipitous way that Custom Neon® came to be! I went on maternity leave fully expecting to return to a job that I love, and then started Custom Neon® quite by accident. Initially it was just a side hustle, I never envisaged that I would become an entrepreneur, but here I am loving every twist and turn in the road!
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?
I am so grateful for my business partners who have the complete opposite skill set to me. I think it is so important to surround yourself with people who have strengths in areas that you do not. No one is good at everything, but the key is surrounding yourself with people who can balance you out! When it comes to websites, and the numbers side of the business, I’m lost! I still struggle to understand these areas of the business, so I have focused on the things I am more comfortable with like HR, customer service and social media.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
We use Skype all the time! With offshore employees and working together over different time zones, I think our own internal version of Skype that suited our individual needs would be awesome! Also, we are always dreaming up advanced customisations to our CRM systems and often these are not feasible. So, I think it would also be amazing to have a CRM that allows all the customisations we could ever want! Systems that help streamline the entire customer service journey, far beyond the checkout, so that we can fortify those relationships with our valued customers.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first”
I’ve learnt that it’s impossible to try and do it all. At the end of the day, it’s so important to make sure that you prioritise time and space for your mental and physical health. Starting and running a business can be a very busy and on-the-go lifestyle, but looking after yourself must be at the core of this. After feeling burnt out in the past, I understand this more now and I know that I can give my best if I look after myself. Self-care all the way!
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?
There is so much good stuff that comes with working physically with your team. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m so lucky to be surrounded by people who support me and our brand. Where I may lack knowledge in one area, other people help fill in those gaps, and together we work cohesively. Also, the ability to chat and bounce ideas of each other at any given moment is something that can’t really be replicated online. Whether you have a small, seemingly silly question, it’s so nice to shout out across the room and have an answer within seconds. This also goes hand-in-hand with the need for social interaction. Humans are social beings, and whether we know it or not, we need to engage with others to better our mental wellbeing. Strong social connections make people happier, which translates into greater productivity and overall work performance!
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?
Working within a team that spans across different countries and time zones, Custom Neon® are no strangers to the challenges that come with working remotely. Communication has definitely been the biggest issue when liaising with our teams in different continents. This was only made more difficult, and all the more evident, when the entire world was forced into lockdown. Differences in time zones and schedules, public holidays and living arrangements, created problems with workflow and productivity. With struggles to effectively communicate and collaborate, a lot of tasks were prolonged or put on hold, which made it hard to finish projects on time. With much of the world in a perpetuating cycle of rolling in and out of lockdown, this is something we still struggle with today.
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.)
1) Pay attention to how team members prefer to communicate. Not everyone is comfortable on a mass Zoom call, and smaller groups or one-on-ones may be more time consuming, but keeping the art of conversation alive in this digital age is essential. It’s amazing what ideas people come up with when they have the courage to speak out! It’s important every team member gets their say.
2) Provide several communication options — Video conferencing is advantageous when calls are of a more serious nature. Performance reviews, strategy planning and target reviewing would all benefit from visual cues, nodding in agreement or disapproving head shakes. It is so much easier to understand if someone is on the same page when you can see their body language. Empathy, humour and imagination are far more difficult to convey without visuals. For the more mundane topics, Skype or Instant Messenger are perfect.
3) Be aware of time zones and public holidays. We have offices in Australia, The UK and the States, so we suggest you be aware of the differing times before you give someone a call! During dinner or in the middle of the night, will not make you very popular!
4) Socialising is essential. Of course, team building for a globally dispersed team is difficult, but there are lots of options available that the whole team can enjoy. Paint and sip classes are one of our favourites, but we also play virtual bingo and have peak of the week get togethers. It’s so important to share with the team the successes of each department. So often in business, it is the sales team that gets the credit, but make sure everyone knows what goes on behind the scenes. Really strive for a “1 Team 1 Goal” mentality, rather than a “Them vs. Us”.
5) Make the team aware there is always someone online, someone there to listen. I think COVID-19 gave us a real insight into the isolation of working alone, and the struggles some people face. The benefit of being spread across three continents, is there is pretty much always someone working. We also have a Custom Neon® Intranet for all of our team members to use, not only for work topics, sharing work ideas and designs, but it’s also an opportunity to talk about our hobbies and create a social community.
Of course, with teams working remotely, there is the opportunity for people to get distracted or not fulfil their duties. However, if you can create an environment, even remotely, that people are happy to be a part of, where they feel valued, encouraged and respected, the distance won’t matter at all.
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?
As previously mentioned, communication was our greatest challenge when our teams were working remotely. As we are primarily online, teams were sent home with their work computer and monitors, so they were equipped to work from their own home. One issue that came along with this, was making sure each team member had all the tools they needed, such as webcams and headphones, to communicate effectively. At the time it was hard to purchase anything online that wasn’t out of stock, and once we did find something it took over a month to have them delivered. This was a major bump in the road for us in the early days of the pandemic, as it was harder to make video calls with some of our team mates. It just goes to show how much we rely on instant, face-to-face communication in order to work effectively.
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?
We’ve tried many communication tools throughout our time working remotely, and we’ve found Skype to be the easiest service to use! For us, the quality of video calls is much better than Zoom, with little to no complications, making it feel as if you’re all in the same room! The chat function makes it easy to shoot a quick message to someone working in another state, without sending unnecessary emails that could potentially get lost in spam! Skype is also great because it works across multiple devices, meaning I could call someone from my phone and they can answer on their computer! It’s seamless and incredibly user friendly, and I personally think it’s the most effective in helping to replicate being in the same space.
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?
100% yes! The pandemic has put more urgency on streamlined and innovative unified communications technology. Employers want their staff working remotely to feel as if they’re not alone, and instant messaging services, web and video conferencing play a huge part in this. Those with a “My Door is Always Open” ethos want to replicate this online, which calls for higher quality and more advanced UC tools.
Let’s not forget the recent incident of the lawyer trapped in a cat filter! Or, when you’re in a group meeting and suddenly you’re frozen and can’t hear what anyone else is saying. You freak out, you don’t want to miss out on something good! Technical errors like that undermine the formality and seriousness of the context, making it hard to proceed with the call, which has put pressure on the need for greater UC technology.
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 am excited at the prospect of being able to conduct meetings with VR technology. Being able to have an immersive presence rather than faces on screens will hopefully reduce the anxiety of team members that do not like being on camera.
I think this type of environment would also alleviate the distractions that we are susceptible to on video conferencing calls, so meetings would be more productive.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
I am all for technological advancements, but it will never be able to replace the benefit of human interactions.
I don’t want us to create a virtual world for our children, that we lose all sight of the human touch!
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?
As the situations with our customers has changed, so has the way we communicate with them. We have always connected with our customers digitally, with a strict 24-hour response time to ensure we stay active across all channels. However, due to the pandemic, we are a lot more involved now, learning more about our audience and how our product can help them. We are very active on our socials, responding to comments and chatting with our customers through direct messaging. We are also more responsive on Facebook, where we added the public chat function so followers could message us directly. This has helped us sift through all the messages we are getting, both through DM’s an email, as we have multiple people handling each platform.
We strive to make the relationships with our clients go far beyond their purchase. We build long lasting relationships by following up after delivery to ensure our customers are completely satisfied with their product, and engage with them via social media. Being in the digital space we have the incredible opportunity to see some of our signs in action, with people tagging us in their posts online, which further helps improve our CRM.
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?
Personally, when giving constructive criticism, I would suggest always doing it via video chat. Try to avoid emails as they can be easily misinterpreted. When chatting on Skype or Zoom, you see the visual cues of their reaction, and it helps them to understand what you’re saying. It is also the next best thing to being in an actual face-to-face meeting.
Be sure you pick a good time, usually a time that best suits them. Don’t forget your body language, as it’s harder to relay emotion over video chat, so make sure you appear calm and engaged to help convey your message!
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Team cohesion and unison has always been an integral part in establishing a “1 Team, 1 Goal” philosophy within Custom Neon®. Working remotely meant we’ve needed to put a twist on this, so we have elevated our online meetings to ensure better enjoyment and overall engagement for our employees!
Initiatives include virtual paint and sip sessions, where teams were sent their own paint and sip supplies, including snacks and bubbly, (Mimosa’s for Australia as it’s early!) and we all enjoy an online tutorial. Lots of laughter and light-heartedness ensues!
Other initiatives include virtual bingo. Each team member gets a bingo card and receives one or two tiles a day, first to get four tiles wins! Our peak of the week initiative is where we go around and share each other’s ‘peak’ of the week that was. This could be an awesome sale, fantastic design, or increased rankings. Everyone within the team gets to be a part of it and it’s a great reminder of how vital each role is to our teams’ success!
With offices in varying stages of lockdown, care packs were sent out to all our team members, which included a customer service training manual, snacks, refreshments, face masks and a toilet roll! Which in some locations were like gold! But we were also trying to make our employees smile.
After we had sent our teams home with their things to work remotely during lockdown, we also gave them an LED neon sign from our office to display in their homes, as well as branded office drink bottles and mouse pads, to keep the message of our company values alive! It also made each team member feel valued, and it helped create a sense of comfort and familiarity in such strange times.
This approach has increased productivity by 60%, and sales have gone through the roof, all while working in different parts of the world during a global pandemic!
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. 🙂
I’m not sure if it’s a movement, but I’d have to say compassion.
The quote “We Are in the Same Storm, But Not in the Same Boat” has been shared around on socials a lot since Covid-19 emerged. But I think it’s also relevant for life in general. We don’t know what others are going through but if we can strive for more kindness and compassion, the world would be a much better place.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow our story through our socials:
And our websites here:
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.