Include leadership in the conversations: At Construct we have set up monthly Virtual Coffees, where everyone is paired with another person, and they set up a half hour coffee chat at a time that suits them. A possible question is posed, but there is no requirement to discuss this. What happens in these conversations is a more intimate one to one conversation. Here a stronger bond is built and a connection made the endures over time.
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 Meg Knight who serves as the Global Director of Strategic Initiatives and Human Performance at Construct, an online program enablement company. In this role, she is responsible for spearheading and driving technological and process improvements across the organization as needed. She liaises with partners and clients globally to ensure the company is at the forefront of the global education technology conversation, and brings back into the company best practices.
Additionally, she is responsible for developing and implementing the people management strategy, ensuring Construct Education is the employer of choice for skilled talent.
Previously, she was the Chief Operating Officer in the organization’s Cape Town office. As COO, Meg liaised with global teams to drive process and productivity and ensure Construct’s world-class learning design is implemented to the client’s satisfaction.
Meg has earned a Master’s Degree in Education Management and a Diploma of Teaching from the University of Auckland, a Bachelor of Commerce in Business/Managerial Economics from the University of KwaZulu-Natal/University of Natal as well as completing Seth Godin’s altMBA in Entrepreneurship and Impact-Making. She attended TEDGlobal twice to ensure she stays at the forefront of international design and education best practice and innovation. She has co-founded 5 different companies, has 10+ years of experience serving as a COO, and is highly skilled in strategy and learning design.
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 on the ground, as an educator and entrepreneur serving the South African previously disadvantaged (Black) community. We set up training in all 11 languages, as well as illiteracy, and training rural women on financial literacy. In addition, we developed a ‘Township MBA’ which took people with no formal education or skills through a version of an MBA programme. They then were partnered with local large established businesses and assisted to set up their own small business. For example, we linked large retail grocery stores in major towns with our entrepreneurs in small rural communities. The large retailer received more orders, and the community benefited from not having to spend precious money on transport to and from the city to buy groceries. In order to manage this, we built a custom LMS, designed to be used in low- or no-data environments.
From this national basis, I decided I wanted global exposure, and so joined Construct Education as a learning strategist. As I developed my skillset, and Construct grew as a company, I moved through the ranks taking various roles, mixing my business mindset with my background in education. This included Head of Learning, Chief Operating Officer. Now I am in the role of Director of Strategic Initiatives and Human performance, where I bridge the people of the company with the company strategic goals.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
By setting up and running a company that was nationally dispersed, in the times when we relied on faxes and extreme lack of access to the internet, we developed ways of staying connected and communicating with each other that was both effective and low-tech. As I reflect on that experience now, I realize I was learning to develop and sustain networks of people that I draw on in our current remote work environment.
We used to arrive in a village and begin recruiting people to train. Typically this meant we starting with sitting down with the chief in his hut, sharing a meal. While this was a very extreme form of connection, it is still how we form relationships now — although I typically don’t sit in a hut with a new partner, it’s usually across a zoom room. The setting is different but the intention and feeling is the same.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘Rather ask for forgiveness than permission’
If your intention is to make change and improve whatever you find yourself tasked with, you need to take action that is brave and bold, and may not be understood by others. If you have done your homework and have experience behind you, this quote encourages you to take decisive action and back yourself. Then be humble enough to ask for forgiveness.
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 had a female colleague, Gill Crawford, who believed in me as I set up my first business. She championed my skills, and encouraged me to be bold and brave. It is because of her that my business partner and I had the tenacity to tackle what I look back now and see was virtually impossible.
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 a 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?
The key benefit of having a team physically together is the serendipitous and spontaneous conversations that happen. This includes people walking past your desk and stopping to share something, only to realize that one of the people can help solve the other’s problem, or point them in the right direction. It includes overheard conversations that lead to a development of new ideas. Perhaps most critically it’s a problem that is discovered in it’s early stage when it’s a minor irritation for those involved, before it escalates into a situation that it hard to recover from.
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?
When you are not in the same physical space, you rely on people to tell you what’s going on with them, and the challenges they may be facing. If you are not deliberate about facilitating these conversations, then it’s too easy for it to be forgotten. The result can be surprising when people fall apart — and no-one has any idea something was wrong.
The main challenge when people are not in the same space would include a lowering of empathy for the other. If you are sharing meals and seeing people physically, you get a sense of how they are feeling, their energy levels, their motivation.
You lose the chance encounters that you have when in the same physical space, which means you can miss out opportunities to brainstorm or share experiences and learning.
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.)
- Share the small challenges: Be pro-active about setting the expectation that we share the small challenges we are having. If we do this, we have already set the stage for either solving them when they are small, or providing a safe space for people to share when they are feeling overwhelmed and need help.
- Chance Chats: Be intentional about setting up ‘chance chats’. At Construct we have 3 weekly lunch time meetings where people can eat lunch, and also chat. We found that having a structure to them helps, so on a Monday we use our theme of the month to pose a question to the group, and then move people into random breakout groups. What happens next is a version of the chance encounter — people find themselves with an every changing set of people who are not in their usual teams. They have a topic to discuss, and usually end up going ‘off topic’. If they find a common thread, they are free to pursue this offline at different time
- Include leadership in the conversations: At Construct we have set up monthly Virtual Coffees, where everyone is paired with another person, and they set up a half hour coffee chat at a time that suits them. A possible question is posed, but there is no requirement to discuss this. What happens in these conversations is a more intimate one to one conversation. Here a stronger bond is built and a connection made the endures over time.
- Have fun: Not every meeting needs to be business focused. At Construct we have Friday Game days every week with the whole company, we have some smaller teams running side challenges in their slack channels, and we have Wednesday 4 minute presentations on any non-work topic — last week we had a presentation on ‘Why I love Shorts’, ‘Uses for Bicarbonate of Soda’ and ‘The mental health benefits of cold water swimming’ This gives everyone in the company a chance to ‘take the stage’ for 4 minutes, it gives us an insight into someone else’s world, and it’s a huge amount of fun.
- Make it physical: Just because you are physically distanced does not mean you need to not be in physical touch. At The Construct Annual awards, we sent out physical gift boxes to everyone globally. The box included sweets, drinks sets, a t-shirt, mug etc. At the appointed time, we were instructed what to do with each item. This connected us in ways that were fun and engaging at the time, and on an ongoing basis as we all drink from our Construct Mugs, and have T-shirt Fridays every week. We literally see that we are connected.
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?
In my experience, it’s not the tool that is important, it’s what you do with it.
Our Motto at Construct is API — Assume Positive Intent
Whatever the tool you are using, your first touch-stone is API — assume the other person has positive intent. If you filter communications through that lense, the risk of miscommunication is far less.
At Construct we use Slack, Zoom and email. The benefit comes from using the tools in innovative, interesting ways that serve our purpose. The technology is the blank slate and what we overlay is utility.
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?
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? Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Yes, with VR, AR and Mixed Reality, my concern is that we lose our skills of communication directly and in a nuanced way. We humans tend to be somewhat lazy, and if we do not have to make the effort to develop these skills, or to use them in an authentic, conscious way, I’m concerned that we will lose this skill. The effect may be an increased sense of isolation or loneliness — feelings a technology can’t solve.
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 Construct Education, being a global company, the majority of our clients have always been in a different physical location, so this element of our work has not changed. However, we did have an embedded person with the client, for example a senior project manager would be embedded at a particular university partner for the duration of the engagement. This has had to change, and we have pivoted to an online presence. We have found this to be a good facsimile of the in-person scenario, as all members of that engagement have been skilled at communicating online and we have made use of our expertise in this area. However, we do look forward to returning to an in-person embedded culture as soon as feasible.
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?
Agreed, this can be tricky. When giving constructive criticism to a team member, first, use a synchronous technology, such as zoom or Google Meets. Then, one has to be far more explicit about your intentions. So I would suggest stating specifically why the call is happening, and ask for open communication, stating that you value dialogue rather than silence. This way, if something is said that is not well received, the team member has an open forum to request additional clarification or examples, rather than ruminate offline at a later stage.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
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’d love to see more of the innovation we see in the business world filter back into our education system. Perhaps the key solution is to require all teachers to spend some time in the business world. Most teachers have never worked in a business setting, and have no context for what the world of work involves. This has the potential to impact our entire schooling system, and thereby all school age children and their families.
As a mother of 3 sons, I see how thin their use of technology is, even though they are ostensibly using iPads… again, it’s not about just having the technology, we need to educate the teachers HOW to use them and set the expectation that they are effective and current.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.