Find every opportunity to encourage social engagement among your remote team. Sure, this can be virtual happy hours and weekly scheduled “catch up” times. However, it can also be as simple as publicly celebrating wins, acknowledging employees who’ve gone above and beyond, and keeping open lines of communication. One simple thing we do at Expressable is create separate Slack channels based on key topics for our employees. These are places that our therapists and employees can ask for help, give feedback on our product, and share helpful tips and information.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leanne Sherred, M.S., CCC-SLP.
Leanne Sherred, M.S., CCC-SLP is President and Founder of Expressable, an online speech therapy company that envisions a modern, affordable, and convenient way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services. Leanne spent her career working in a variety of speech therapy settings before starting Expressable, including pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Today she calls Austin, Texas home, but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained her Master’s in Speech-Language Pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
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”?
Before starting Expressable, I spent my career practicing speech therapy in a number of in-person settings. However, overtime I became frustrated by the traditional speech therapy model of care. While I love helping children and families reach their communication goals, there were so many obstacles that detracted me — and many of my fellow speech therapists — from providing quality services.
For one, many families I was serving were routinely being issued denials by their insurance companies for speech therapy. What’s worse, paying the exorbitant out-of-pocket costs of private therapy is unattainable for many families, and watching them make personal and financial sacrifices was particularly heartbreaking. While well-funded schools may offer quality speech therapy on site, many lack the staff and resources to provide adequate services tailored to the needs of each child.
By providing online speech therapy, we’re able to reach more people, lower the point of access, and break down geographic barriers. Best of all, teletherapy makes it easy for parents and caregivers to attend sessions alongside their child, at a time most convenient for their family, so they can stay in sync with their therapist and promote communication-building skills at home to improve outcomes.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I think watching the rapid acceleration ox f telehealth has been one of the most surprising and satisfying parts of my career.
I’ve always been a passionate proponent of telehealth and teletherapy as a great equalizer. The ability to break down financial barriers and geographic limitations, while still maintaining quality of care, has the power to reshape the healthcare system. While the adoption of telehealth has been on an upwards trajectory for many years, I’m excited to see more permanent behavioral changes taking place that I believe will continue long after COVID-19 has stabilized.
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?
Obviously, at Expressable we’re huge believers and proponents of the efficacy of telehealth. We’ve found that children are extremely engaged and receptive to online learning, and are able to establish strong relationships with their therapist through this medium. However, in terms of funny mistakes, I quickly learned to be a bit more conservative in trusting some of my young clients with the “draw” feature on Zoom. Oh… you can only imagine!
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
I think the first step to addressing employee burnout is acknowledging that it actually exists. It’s a problem, and it’s one that’s only been exacerbated by employees assuming new roles as full-time teachers, nannies, and caretakers, in addition to added financial pressures and emotional burdens brought on by the pandemic.
It’s too easy for CEOs and leaders to adopt the mindset that an employee’s input is somehow correlated to their output, meaning, the more late-night emails and calls and keyboard strokes will equate to increased productivity. This simply isn’t true. In fact, I’d contend it’s quite the opposite.
There’s a lot of obvious things we can do to prevent burnout and maintain work-life balance — appropriately managing workloads, checking in regularly, leading by example. However, in my opinion the best thing leaders can do is to create a culture of caring, one where employees aren’t apprehensive to speak up, be honest, and share their concerns. We all get to our breaking point from time to time. What’s important is that we foster a culture and community that addresses these issues — not through the lip service of empty corporate promises — but with real, tangible, and measurable actions.
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?
As an online speech therapy provider, Expressable’s team is fully remote. We’ve been this way since our company was founded a year and half ago. I currently manage a team of 30 employees and speech therapists in multiple states across the country. We’re not a speech therapy “marketplace” — everyone who works for Expressable is a fully employed member of the team.
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?
I don’t think managing a remote team is any more challenging than an in-person team. The challenges may simply be a little bit different.
- Company Culture: Sometimes — but not always — company culture can happen more organically in an office setting. Brushing shoulders with your colleagues daily can build trust, camaraderie, and friendship with little input or concerted effort from management. However, this isn’t necessarily a good thing in the long-run. I think the pandemic is exposing companies that have built their culture on stilts rather than solid foundations. Building a strong company culture should be one of every leader’s main priorities; it requires time and investment, and must be cultivated and maintained indefinitely. I think many leaders are being forced to reexamine their culture during this time, which will ultimately benefit their employees and their company.
- Productivity: I know that many companies who’ve recently transitioned to remote work have found it challenging to manage employee workloads and productivity. Personally, I think this is more perception than reality. The myth that forcing people to sit in front of a computer for 8 hours a day will lead to greater levels of productivity is just that — a myth. Sometimes people need a break at 3:00pm; some people are most effective working in the evening after dinner. This flexibility should be encouraged. While the knee-jerk response can be to provide more oversight, more accountability, and more discipline, this is ultimately counterproductive. Remote work gives employees more latitude in choosing how they spend their time, and people ultimately excel when they are given trust and the freedom of responsibility. If you’ve hired the right people and invested in culture, remote work should amplify your business, not detract from it.
- Communication: If the appropriate tools and technology are not in place, remote communication can suffer. It’s no longer as easy as popping your head into your boss’s office, or chatting around the proverbial watercooler. Fostering open lines of communication is critical to preventing employees from feeling isolated.
- Work-Life Balance: As mentioned previously, if employees’ workloads aren’t managed correctly, the challenge of maintaining work-life balance can often be exasperated at home. It seems counterintuitive at first, but I’m sure we’ve all felt this. There’s a sense of finality to shutting your laptop, leaving the office, and commuting home. When we’re working from home all day, the hours start to blur together, and this clear demarcation isn’t apparent. Therefore, it’s incumbent on managers to be even more hyper-aware of their employees’ workloads, and consistently support them in taking personal time, prioritizing their health, and spending time with their family.
- Isolation: A persistent lack of socialization and interactivity can be difficult for some individuals, especially extraverts. It goes without saying that these feelings have been heightened in the time of COVID-19, where social interactions are limited not just in the workplace, but among family and friends as well. While there’s no magic elixir here, the solution revolves around addressing many of the issues listed previously, including company culture, open lines of communication, and finding new creative opportunities to engage employees in fun and meaningful ways.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
As a remote-only company, we’ve learned to address many of these challenges. Here’s a few ways we do that:
- I believe the simplest and most effective ways to navigate these challenges boils down to hiring the right people. Expressable is a mission-focused company founded on a vision for lowering the access point to speech therapy care. I’m looking for employees who don’t simply want a job, but are motivated by a strong desire for creating a new and better model of care that improves the lives of our clients. This should be the goal of any CEO or hiring manager. For some this is intuitive, for others this requires more structured questions that go beyond qualifications and touches upon their vision for reshaping an industry. I strongly believe that when you hire qualified, passionate, and trustworthy people, that nagging concern of employee output and productivity will naturally dissipate.
- Secondly, every leader touts an “open virtual door” policy, but very few execute that promise. The worst thing you can do is pay lip service to such an important and foundational aspect of good management. If you say it, mean it, whether that knock on the door is coming from a potential investor or an intern.
- Third, find every opportunity to encourage social engagement among your remote team. Sure, this can be virtual happy hours and weekly scheduled “catch up” times. However, it can also be as simple as publicly celebrating wins, acknowledging employees who’ve gone above and beyond, and keeping open lines of communication. One simple thing we do at Expressable is create separate Slack channels based on key topics for our employees. These are places that our therapists and employees can ask for help, give feedback on our product, and share helpful tips and information.
- Fourth, rely less on meetings. This can often be a natural byproduct of remote work, and one of its greatest advantages. Of course this is dependent on having the tools and technologies in place (like Google docs, Slack, Figma, etc), but more importantly, it’s a mindset shift. Teams should get in the habit of more asynchronous communication, and learn to accept the reality that responses and feedback may not always be received immediately. This doesn’t mean productivity suffers. It means that everyone’s voice gets heard — not just the loudest person in the room — which ultimately leads to more effective collaboration.
- Finally, you can’t fix what you don’t know. I’d encourage leaders to regularly release internal surveys and questionnaires to gauge how much their employees feel engaged, supported, and satisfied. However, only do this if every response, good and bad, is examined through a microscope and addressed expediently. It shows that you’re listening, that you care, and that the management team is committed to building a fulfilling and trusting 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?
It sounds simple, but just be honest. I’ve found that employees are open and receptive to constructive criticism. What they don’t appreciate is having to “interpret” meaning from some sort of sugar-coated or construed message.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
I think whether in-person, on a video call, or by phone, my advice for feedback would be the same.
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?
Enjoy it! Working home has so many advantages — no more long commutes, less time wasted in meetings, and less internal office politics. I personally love the comfort and convenience of working from home with my doggo nestled between my feet.
I’d say try to replicate the best parts of the office experience virtually. Keep your Tuesday happy hours on the books; video chat people instead of calling them so you can have a face-to-face conversation; share pictures of how you’ve decorated your home workspace. Sure, virtual work will never be the exact same as office work, but there are many ways to continue having fun and enjoyable shared experiences with your colleagues.
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?
It’s more important than ever to emphasize the importance of company culture and your willingness to support your employees. If instilling a strong company culture wasn’t a prime concern pre-COVID, I’d say now is a good time to reevaluate your priorities. With a remote team, you can’t “fake” culture — it takes considerable effort to build one that’s encouraging, fun, rewarding, and fulfilling. The values your company lives by are the exact same, only the physical location where those values are exemplified has changed.
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. 🙂
Mass recognition and acceptance that pineapple is in fact a suitable pizza topping.
More specifically, I think it would be an acceptance of change. COVID-19 will permanently shift how and where business is conducted for the foreseeable future. We’re already seeing some of the largest companies in the world extending work from home indefinitely for their employees. For many, this charge is hard and it will take a considerable period of adjustment. But within change lies opportunity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Short cuts make long delays.” — J.R.R. Tolkien
Thank you for these great insights!