Some team members struggle with distractions, whether it be family members or housework, so they tend to be underproductive. Others are too focused and available, working until they realize it’s past their normal stop time. It’s helpful to have a mechanism that tracks who may be underperforming and who is pushing themselves too hard. Stand ups help communicate the expectations and support the employees while getting a grasp on their workload. For example, CRMs for sales helps measure deal progress, while ticket systems help measure productivity on phone calls.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Keegan Peterson.
Keegan Peterson is Founder and CEO of Würk, the leading human capital management company for the cannabis industry. Keegan founded Wurk in 2015 after recognizing that cannabis businesses didn’t have access to the same scalable HR technology solutions as mainstream companies. Cannabis companies were repeatedly being dropped by workforce management vendors and Keegan saw the opportunity to build an HR and Payroll platform specifically to serve the rapidly growing cannabis industry. Under his leadership, Wurk now serves hundreds of clients across 33 states, including some of the largest publicly traded cannabis corporations in the nation. Würk now pays one in ten employees in the cannabis industry.
Prior to founding Wurk, Keegan spent over a decade working for high-growth HR technology companies, developing a deep understanding of how to build and scale software solutions that automate critical HR functions of business operations.
Keegan is active in lifting up other entrepreneurs in the cannabis space. He is a mentor at Canopy Boulder and Canopy San Diego, a mentorship-driven, early-stage investment program for startups in the cannabis industry, with a focus on ancillary products and services. Keegan is an outspoken public advocate and thought leader for the cannabis industry and is associate producer on the 2018 documentary Weed The People, which aims to educate mainstream audiences about medical cannabis as a human rights issue.
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 in Florida and studied finance and biology in college. After college, I found myself living in Colorado working in the human capital technology world, partnering with enterprise restaurant and retail brands on how to utilize technology to best deploy their people to drive stronger customer experiences. Being in Colorado for the past 10 years, I witnessed the state legalize recreational marijuana and all of the good it did for our community. Coming from Florida, where my mom was a social worker and my dad was a software engineer, the thought of bringing technology to the cannabis industry was a dream come true. If I could help these companies grow and stabilize their business so they could maximize their impact in their communities, then I could participate in making our communities and our world a better place. So cannabis technology quickly became my ultimate life passion.
I founded Wurk in 2015 after recognizing that cannabis businesses didn’t have access to the same scalable HR technology solutions as mainstream companies. Cannabis companies were repeatedly being dropped by workforce management vendors because these providers did not have the compliance or banking infrastructure to support cannabis operations. I saw the opportunity to build an HR and Payroll platform that meets industry compliance and is supported by cannabis-compliant banking to specifically serve the rapidly growing industry.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting thing that happened to me since I began my career was being involved as Associate Producer for the Weed the People documentary. I sat next to Ricki Lake at a networking event in Utah and she told me about a documentary she was working on. I was able to jump in on the project and help produce it. The film ended up getting into SXSW and was eventually picked up by Netflix with a successful run last year.
The documentary follows the story of six children suffering from cancer and receiving chemotherapy treatments. They used cannabis for relief from the side effects and for the best experience possible while going through that traumatic time. The film shows how cannabis can really help suffering people.
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?
Wurk is the first company I’ve ever started, and I didn’t fully understand some of the metrics that investors care about. I was confidently presenting decks with my misunderstood metrics to potential investors who had to tell me what the metrics meant. I left those meetings feeling like I completely missed the mark, spending a lot of the time being corrected by people I was trying to impress.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
It’s important to understand how much work your employees have on their plate so you don’t overwork them. You must be realistic about priorities and workload, and it’s your responsibility to be constantly aware of your company’s happenings so you can protect your team. Everyone is trying their best to get their work done, and it’s the manager’s responsibility to know when they are burning too hot, when to back off and to make sure employees find time to take off.
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?
I have been working remotely for a decade, since 2010. My first job out of college was managing a remote team, so really my entire career has been remote. Wurk was the first office environment I’ve ever been a part of but we have always had remote workers.
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? Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
The first challenge is communication. About 50% of communication comes from body language but you don’t get the same experience in expressing body language remotely. It’s difficult to know what people are doing and how they are feeling when you don’t have that level of communication. It’s more important than ever to ensure managers are trained to have a weekly one-on-one with their employees. Daily stand ups and overcommunication is important, as well. It’s okay to be redundant. In fact, you probably aren’t saying it often enough.
The second challenge is productivity — both overproductivity and underproductivity. Some team members struggle with distractions, whether it be family members or housework, so they tend to be underproductive. Others are too focused and available, working until they realize it’s past their normal stop time. It’s helpful to have a mechanism that tracks who may be underperforming and who is pushing themselves too hard. Stand ups help communicate the expectations and support the employees while getting a grasp on their workload. For example, CRMs for sales helps measure deal progress, while ticket systems help measure productivity on phone calls.
Prioritization is another problem. Everyone uses email and chat rooms when working remote so you lack the normal, conversational back and forth. Some may not realize another’s workload when asking for help. It can be difficult for employees to understand what is important and what isn’t when prioritizing. Having frequent check-ins with managers and allowing employees to dismiss a request if they are overwhelmed helps to prioritize tasks. Create weekly, monthly and quarterly goals and provide a tool for decision making.
Another challenge is avoiding burnout. Work from home environments can be traps for burnout because work is home and home is work — there aren’t any boundaries. The ability to work from home is a perk to some if they prove they can do it, but sometimes they push themselves too hard to maintain the perk. I’ve had many conversations with executives who are surprised by the amount of productivity from remote employees. What is not being discussed is the looming burnout of team members who are pushing themselves too hard from home. Managers must understand the amount of work each employee has, using tools to measure their productivity.
The final challenge is culture. We’re entering a new era where we must build a virtual culture. Employees often form friendships while going out to happy hours together, grabbing dinner or even traveling together. A majority of our time is spent at work, but we are also social beings. That aspect is removed when working virtually. The only chance to catch up is over Zoom. You need to recognize the values that make up your company culture and have systems in place where employees can recognize one another when they live up to their values. It’s important to also continue to hire people who further your culture and help you move it towards your ideal environment.
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?
Use a feedback model that works for the type of company and culture you have. There are many models available, including Cedar, Star and SPI. Both employees and managers will need training on how to give and receive constructive criticism. It’s difficult to provide feedback virtually because you lack the body language component of communication and can’t easily detect how it’s being received. I find that it’s best to be honest and upfront with your employees and ensure both sides recognize the limits to virtual communication. Check in and ask how it went afterwards to perceive each side’s perspective and discuss any challenges to better understand what you can do to improve the conversations.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Email is not the place to give constructive feedback as you never know how it will be received. It’s common to misunderstand the tone of an email that isn’t clearly composed. It’s also easy to hide behind emails and relay whatever feedback they want because they aren’t facing the employee. It’s better to utilize the technology we have available today and set up a phone call or video conference to provide the most person-to-person experience possible. Understand the feedback model and attack the issues at hand, not the person.
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?
There are four stages of team formation: forming, storming, norming and performing. Forming is when people are just starting to work together, are making an effort to get to know each other and are positive and polite. The next stage, storming, is when team members start to push against the boundaries established in the previous stage, like when there is a conflict between members’ working styles. The team gradually moves into the norming stage when they begin to resolve their differences, appreciate each other’s strengths and respect authority. Team members are better acquainted and may begin socializing together. Finally, the performing stage is reached when the team achieves their goal without any arguments.
Ensure your team members understand what stage they are in and help them move onto the next stage. It’s alright to call out any discomfort and tell them it’s okay that it’s not perfect, using it to build morale around the fact that they are working together to get over this challenge. It can be more challenging when working remote, but easier if you set expectations that they are going through these stages virtually.
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?
Provide tools that remove the tactical work so they can focus on what really matters rather than mundane tasks. Find times to engage employees and use communication tools well, like chat, email and video conferences to communicate between employees. It’s okay to over communicate through these channels. Teams may feel as though there are more meetings than usual, but it’s necessary to get people plugged in. Set up one-on-ones with each team member to ask how they are doing not just with work, but also home life to see what you can do to better support them.
Virtual team building is also helpful, like virtual scavenger hunts or buying a team lunch so they can enjoy it together. There are a lot of available resources and assessments that help people learn about each other and how they approach work and teamwork. Since they’re not going into the office together, this helps discover their communication style and personality, and vice versa.
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. 🙂
Legalizing cannabis is the obvious first move. People are still being incarcerated and lives are being ruined over something natural, with evidence that it improves people’s quality of life. We need to get to a point where no one’s lives are negatively impacted by this plant.
Also, fair and equitable work environments would change the world. We are currently operating with a fraction of the intelligence available in the world by putting certain people in positions of leadership. The quicker we can achieve more diverse perspectives, especially within the leadership team, the sooner we will recognize the full potential of human intelligence.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is “The one who endures until the end will be delivered.” I put this in my locker when I was playing football in college. I wasn’t surrounded by the best leaders, but by people who didn’t give me the feeling that they wanted me to succeed personally, just to perform. I had to find my own strength to do well because it was my goal. It reminded me every day of how hard it would be, but that I have the ability to get there and just have to endure the challenges that come my way. I ultimately became a scholarshipped division 1 athlete ranked top 20 in my division.
Life is challenging for everyone and we are all going through our own personal difficulties. All great things work through a difficult time, but we must push our boundaries and endure that experience. We must step into uncomfortable situations to have an expanded consciousness.
Thank you for these great insights!