Our instinctual, habitual response to something or someone is typically highly emotional, and we act without thinking. Creating awareness and a moment’s pause before responding to someone allows us to choose how we respond, the tone, the words we use, and more.
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 Katie McLaughlin.
Katie is passionate about creating happier, healthier workplaces. In her business: McLaughlin Method, Katie leverages her decades of experience driving organizational change, transforming processes and training programs, and applying principles of adult behavior & performance to create people focused leaders and team cultures. Companies who work with Katie, learn from the benchmarks and successes of over 15 software companies that have coached and trained with her. Katie believes that culture must be consistently reinforced and brought into all interactions at work. Through leadership development programs, executives and rising leaders learn how to inspire and motivate their diverse teams, plus make inclusion and engagement priorities in the team culture. Katie believes all trainings must develop real skills and go beyond theory so her sessions are highly interactive, employing theatre exercises and games to go deeper while cementing the learning.
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?
I started my career in nonprofits and education administration before entering the startup/tech world where I found my sweet spot in my career. I left college with loads of theatre training and a passion for sharing the life lessons from theatre with others. Then I stumbled into the fun world of technology and software startups. I say “startup” but at the point where I joined these companies, they frequently had more than 150 employees. But they wore the term startup as a badge of honor for how they were moving quickly and looking to create a different kind of company culture.
After spending more than 10 years in technology startups working in people-related roles — from training, talent, sales enablement and change management, I realized that I was leveraging my knowledge of human behavior from my theatre training. I’ve had success coaching employees, developing managers, and executing training and change management programs that get results. So now in my business McLaughlin Method (www.mclaughlinmethod.com), I help my clients adopt behaviors that will help them connect to and motivate their teams through an application of theatre concepts and exercises.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
In my early career, I was coaching customer service agents and helping them improve the quality of their calls. I realized very quickly that most people came to coaching sessions extremely defensive, with their walls up, and full of harsh self-criticisms. It shocked me at first. I thought about how I’d need to try to get them to open up to seeing the situation differently. It was in one of those coaching rooms that I had this aha moment connecting the business skill of coaching to my theatre training as an actor. Working with others was something that could be approached like character development and scene study. Identify the intention that I have, and acknowledge that the other person has an intention in that same conversation. We’re each using different tactics to try to get what we want. That was the moment where I realized just how complex and wonderful the learnings are from theatre. And more importantly, that I could share these lessons with others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is from Augusto Boal, the founder of the theatre techniques I leverage in my business. I’m roughly paraphrasing from memory: “Whatever one human being can do, so can any other human being. Maybe not as well or as prolifically, but it can be done, because we are all human beings.” It continues to remind me of the possibility in myself and in others. We can be so hard on ourselves. Comparing ourselves to others, and using that as evidence that we aren’t good enough. This quote reminds me anything is possible. It helps me change “I can’t” to “I can.”
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?
Taking the leap to start a business is not an easy one. I’ve definitely struggled with self-doubt. In fact, I’ve been wanting to start this business for over a decade, and I am just wrapping up my first year in business. There are too many people to name who have helped support me on the journey to entrepreneurism. I want to celebrate one individual, Morgan Thompson, who has been a mentee and former employee of mine. Her positivity, belief and confidence in me, at just the right moment, has really stuck with me. In the end, it wasn’t about who was teaching whom. We need people in our lives that can reflect back to us what they see in us, and not just what our self-doubt or gremlins are telling us about ourselves.
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?
Well the way I think about having a team physically together is first about the space we meet in. The physical office space is an expression of the goals and values of a company. This space tells you if it is a high-energy environment that encourages collaboration and productivity. When each member of the team is not in the same physical space, it’s easy to lose focus and keep track of what needs to be done. Being physically together makes sharing of ideas more seamless between each member making collaboration easier. Communication is also usually better because we see a person throughout the course of a day and can better sense the person’s energy, focus, and intention through body language and other nonverbal cues.
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?
Coordinating virtually with a team can be challenging because of communication barriers. A lot gets lost in communication when we’re not interacting face to face due to lack of tonality, facial context, visual cues, etc. Another common challenge that teams face when they’re not in the same physical space is their tendency to suffer from burnout and exhaustion. Back to back virtual team meetings can take a toll on each member. Not getting up to move around, or even not taking care of basic needs like drinking enough water or taking bathroom breaks. We can feel like we’re chained to our desks or devices. With this kind of burnout, we lose focus and become disengaged with our work. It’s easy to misinterpret what someone says quickly over an instant message. “What’s the status of that project you’ve been working on?” can sound like an accusation to one person when the person asking meant it as “I’m just checking in and curious to hear how you are doing.”
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.)
- First, acknowledge that you need a whole new skill set for communicating in a remote world. No longer can you drop by an employee’s desk or call an emergency meeting. Because you can’t be physically in the same space as your entire team, calling an “emergency meeting” now messes up their schedules with clients or encroaches on their family time. This requires a bit of creativity to develop a regular and frequent cadence of communication with your team. I have found that setting up a standing “office hours” video call on my team’s calendar allows people to drop in and know that I will be available to help them out.
- Second: In order to communicate better with your team, get to know their attitudes, values, and beliefs. As a manager, it’s easy to focus on meeting business objectives, analyzing data, and looking good to your bosses and the C-suite. It is too easy to forget that we’re dealing with humans who have emotions, feelings, and needs. Each employee is different, so getting to know them on an individual level will be key to finding out what will get them to help you achieve the business goals you’re looking for. Your people are everything.
- Third: Repetition is your friend. Our brains are hardwired to look for patterns and associate things together. Leverage this for good. If you want to be a leader who your team feels they can go to with problems or issues, you have to continue to repeat to them how to reach you, how you can help, and how you view asking for help. We have all worked for too many managers who demonstrated toxic, contradictory behaviors. So we need to work harder at creating a new pattern for our teams of being available, genuine, and supportive.
- Another thing to keep in mind when communicating with our team remotely is that praise must be frequent and intentional. Your team cannot see the smile you have when reading their email or report on how something went. So now, you must communicate that praise frequently, and often. Celebrate all of the wins.
- Finally, learn to become an observer of yourself and your reactions to people in the workplace. So much of the conflict that I see comes from misinterpreted events and people being triggered by something at work. This happens on both sides of the conversation. Our instinctual, habitual response to something or someone is typically highly emotional, and we act without thinking. Creating awareness and a moment’s pause before responding to someone allows us to choose how we respond, the tone, the words we use, and more.
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?
We experienced early expectations of everyone having their video on for all calls. It caused a lot of emotional burnout for folks. I know it did for me. It takes more energy to be on video all the time. We’ve shifted to having some meetings just be a phone call, and that’s been a huge help. There’s also this great setting on Zoom called “Hide Self View.” That has certainly helped me relax and be more present on video calls.
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’ve found a lot of benefits in video calls of course. But I’ve also leveraged sending quick video messages using CloudApp to my team. It’s felt more like I’m able to connect with them.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
Probably something that could be like a combination of Voxer, MarcoPolo, and Slack. Something that could simulate a “drop by” or “by the way” kind of moment. I also think some kind of virtual projection collaboration tool would be awesome. My favorite way to collaborate is with a whiteboard. The virtual ones don’t cut it for me. I need to get up and be writing!
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?
Collaboration in person frequently uses multiple methods of communicating — like a white board, audio, video, physical or digital collaborations. So yes, I’d agree that having more unified communications has been key. I’ve often been looking for ways to combine tools so that way the collaboration feels more interactive. Like hopping on a video call while also collaborating on a shared google doc.
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 tend to be more of a late adopter when it comes to new technology, so I’m probably a little more focused on right now than on even 2 years from now. But I am excited about some of the new video / camera technology that typically I used to only see in conference rooms at companies. The accessibility of technology like this for home offices and small businesses really excites me and opens a lot of doors.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
With all this effort placed on digital first teams, I hope we won’t forget how wonderful it can be to interact with a person. We still see this in the infamous “phone jails” of many an IVR or automated phone system. It can be awful to get what you need. It feels degrading and icky. We need people who are alive, motivated, and come up with the next great idea. Those amazing ideas still come from a person, not a machine. I just hope that we won’t forget the reason we need all these tools for collaboration — that we need the people, too.
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?
At first, it’s easy to just rely on digital tools. The message for business is “Automate. Automate. Automate.” But so much is lost there. I’ve found that business is always about that personal touch with a customer. We still buy from people we like and trust. It is hard to trust a bot and to feel valued.
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?
It is important that we keep in mind that every bit of communication counts. Especially when it comes to providing feedback to your team. We rely on so many tiny, subtle nuances to impact how we communicate with others, that we are unable to shift that perception now that the workforce is dispersed. We might think that subtlety will get us through, when in fact, as leaders we need to be more overt in communicating goals, priorities, and reactions, plus continue to repeat the key messages we want to stick. It’s even more likely now with remote teams where “constructive” criticism might be the only interaction we have with our managers. Very quickly, it feels harsh and demotivating. Build up your teams’ strengths, and don’t just over-focus on what you need them to fix. Your team is their own harshest critic. Let them tell you what they think they need to improve on, and then celebrate all the things that they are doing right.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
I think we’re all a little tired of only video calls and attempting to have virtual happy hours. Rethink what it is like to be a part of a team. What were you able to see or learn about your team based on how they showed up to work each day, or what they had on their desk? Get to know the people in their lives. Invite people to tell you a story about something in their background or share what is on their desk (since you most likely can’t see it through that video call). Fold in a stand up and stretch break into your meetings. Throw on music while a meeting is gathering (especially those company all hands). You can pipe in your audio through zoom using the advanced features on screen sharing. Add motivational quotes to your background (virtual or real).
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 really believe that is at the core of what I am trying to do with my business, McLaughlin Method. I believe that if we were to acknowledge and hold space for people’s entire experience as a human, we’d all probably feel a lot better about ourselves, our families, and the world. I see a lot of hurt people out there, who crave healing and validation. I want everyone to know that they are okay and are doing great.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You may check out my website — https://mclaughlinmethod.com/ or follow me on my Linkedin pages:
Personal — https://www.linkedin.com/in/mclaughlinkatie/
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.