Check in and infuse humor. We get so transactional, and it wears on the human spirit. I always make sure to check in with my team before diving into work. My go-to formula is to share a positive piece of news, something that invokes humor and a sense of community, and something personal since it sets an example for others to do the same. This creates a similar environment to what we would cognitively get from impromptu office conversations.
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 Kamal Janardhan, General Manager of Microsoft 365 Insights. She has been at Microsoft for over 18 years leading product for enterprise productivity within Microsoft 365. She currently manages the Viva Insights product which enables the experiences and platform for wellbeing, productivity and organizational resilience for individuals, managers and org leaders. These encompass MyAnalytics, Workplace Analytics, Cortana briefing and the new wellness features in Microsoft Teams, including Virtual Commute and the corresponding Headspace integration.
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 about how you got started at Microsoft?
I’ve always been drawn to bringing the left and right brain together. In college, I majored in both English literature and computer science and focused my thesis on the similarities between programs and poems. At Microsoft, I started out as an engineer and then shifted within the engineering team to a role leading product design for enterprise productivity. My goal is to figure out how we can help individuals, teams and organizations be the best version of themselves.
What’s an interesting or unexpected experience that has happened to you since you began your career?
Early on in my career, I learned from a customer’s personal story about how software can be a help or a hindrance hinging on how well we understand the customer’s need and the user experience. This highlighted the importance of internalizing the customer’s experience with data and qualitative scenarios — it’s something that can easily be forgotten when we get into the details of building complex engineering systems.
What is your favorite “life lesson quote” and why?
I have several. The first one is: “be kinder than necessary because everyone is fighting some internal battle.” Creating space for this is incredibly important when building a team, creating software, and promoting productivity. My other favorite, which I have posted above my desk, is from RGB: “fight for the things you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” As a woman in a male-dominated field [engineering], this is always a challenge and an opportunity. Lastly, I love the quote “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler” because in engineering it is easy to over complicate things.
Is there a particular person/mentor that helped get you to where you are?
My father who was an engineer, entrepreneur and amateur dramatist was a huge influence in shaping my understanding of how to care for people while also building great engineering systems and a viable business. He always thought in terms of what is possible vs. what is not and is a big part of why I am here.
What are five things you need to know to effectively communicate with your team if you are rarely in the same space.
- Stand up and move around. I encourage my team to turn on videos, stand up and move around so there is a sense of space. It is cognitively not normal to see our own face every time we talk to someone, so finding ways to ensure you are interacting with others more than yourself.
- Share an intention. Set the intention of the conversation at the beginning of a meeting and provide an agenda to guide the discussion.
- Check in and infuse humor. We get so transactional, and it wears on the human spirit. I always make sure to check in with my team before diving into work. My go-to formula is to share a positive piece of news, something that invokes humor and a sense of community, and something personal since it sets an example for others to do the same. This creates a similar environment to what we would cognitively get from impromptu office conversations.
- Relax and play together. In addition to finding levity, my team and I started meditating together for five minutes at the start of meetings and it was so impactful for us that it led to the integration of Headspace within Teams. We also like to incorporate music into meetings and rotate the person who picks the song. There is something about accommodating someone else that builds camaraderie.
- Take your meetings outside. Knowing that physical activity boosts cognitive function, my team and I often take meetings on walks together to help reduce video fatigue.
In your experiences, what tool(s) have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?
Microsoft Together mode, which uses AI segmentation technology to digitally place participants in a shared background (like an auditorium), makes it feel like you’re sitting in the same room as others and is even proven to help reduce video fatigue. It’s also important to remember that you can’t truly connect if you’re constantly online. Having space and silence away from work is how connection at work actually becomes meaningful.
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?
It is more important than ever. That is why we’ve created an organizing layer for anything you want to accomplish with Microsoft Teams — the modes of communication with chat, meetings and calling; the ability to collaborate on documents and share them in a team workspace; and the ability to extend it with other apps and services. This unified set of capabilities completely transforms the way work gets done and it creates a shared canvas for teams of people in a unique and powerful way.
Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?
I use the same principles for giving constructive criticism remotely that I used while in-person (eye contact, moments of connection, etc.). Most importantly, I get to know someone on a human level first. That way, we have an existing relationship built on trust.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Software is in the service of human endeavor; and it should always be human centric. Given that I am excited about our ability to take this shift to remote and hybrid work to create flexibility for employees (which they love) on a regular basis, and then mix it in with ways to interact with one another in an organic, cognitively rewarding way.
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? Anything that concerns you?
At Microsoft, we have an opportunity to become an essential part of employee productivity. I want every company to see well-being as a requirement and to design software in a way that protects individuals’ time and energy. I’m interested to see the entire tech industry step up to meet this challenge.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.