Overcommunicate. What feels like over-communication in a physical environment is actually normal communication in a remote environment. My staff might send big requests in email form, then follow-up with a direct Slack message, so I know to look for it. Know that there are places where urgent and non-urgent messages live. For example, if a team member needs help right away, send it to the whole Slack channel, don’t just ask one person. Also, if you see someone who isn’t communicating as much, invite them to speak up. It is key to employee engagement.
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 Michael Ly, CEO — Reconciled: Michael launched Reconciled in the summer of 2015 after spending several years as a financial consultant for small businesses in Vermont. He thrives off the passion of entrepreneurs and business leaders and enjoys leading the whole team. He enjoys time with his wife and kids, as well as making friends from all walks of life.
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’ve been working as an accountant since I was 16 and come from an immigrant family that was very entrepreneurial. Reconciled was originally conceived from my work with entrepreneurs and small business owners. I saw what a hard time they were having with their back-office functions. I just wanted to help them out and provide an innovative way for small business owners and entrepreneurs to easily access back-office products and services. By leveraging technology, I was able to create a new bookkeeping business model that traditionally didn’t exist before Reconciled was created.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My first job when I was fresh out of college was working for a public accounting firm. I remember the first client I was assigned to was about as difficult a situation as I could imagine. I was asked to go to the client and fire their entire accounting department. Then, I needed to learn what they all did and re-create it all on my own. I was only 22 years old at the time. That was so rough.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” -Epictetus
I started Reconciled (and still run it) with a listening approach towards customers and employees alike. With every conversation that I have, I try my best to intentionally not talk about myself and ask lots of questions about the person or people I’m communicating with. I get so much value out of listening.
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?
My first boss when I was 16, was a man named Erik Widmark. Everyone always called him “Wid.” He was a former NFL player, who went on to recruiting after retirement, then started a sports non-profit company in Arizona, where I met him. He ran that non-profit organization just like a sports team. Every staff meeting felt like it was the last meeting you’d have in your whole life. Every member of our team felt like a lineman ready to head out on the field for the last play of the game. Erik impressed upon me to inspire greatness from people, no matter their role within the organization. I was just an accountant, but I felt like I was always living in my moment of greatness for that organization. He lived by two sayings, “Always say thank you,” and “Kill them with kindness.” What I learned from him still resonates with me today.
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?
Having your team physically present in proximity allows you all the advantage of non-verbal communication. When you really think about it, the majority of our communication throughout the day actually is given and received non-verbally. So, being able to read a person’s physical posture and facial expressions is really important in how you interact with each other.
Relational spontaneity/interaction is more easily achieved when physically present or nearby. 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?
The thing that is missing most often from a remote team is the ability to communicate non-verbally. This is especially true if your remote team doesn’t use video often. You are so limited on the amount of non-body communication — you don’t see facial expressions or body language. Even if you have video functionality, you’re only seeing a portion of their body language. You don’t see their posture, how they’re sitting, or if they would normally be standing or pacing.
Another thing that is missing most often from remote work environments is spontaneity. You have to schedule it, which seems like an oxymoron. Scheduling it is the only way to achieve it in a remote environment. You really have to leverage technology more than if your team works together in-person, in order to achieve the same goals and benefits.
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.)
- Create an intentional communication plan for you and your employees. How often and when you communicate will create an important rhythm and expectation of how you expect your team to communicate. I always make sure to attend all our social coffee hours and game times, when possible. This shows our staff that these fun events are encouraged!
- Leverage and make technology accessible. Leveraging cloud-based technology, like Zoom, Slack, and Email is important in a remote team. We set expectations of when to use each app. With clients, we like to use Zoom (camera on) when possible to ensure a better experience. We also have the rule to respond to internal Slack requests within 4 hours, if you’re working that day. Typically, the turnaround time is instant, but if someone is in meetings, you know you can expect an answer back before the end of the day.
- Establish proactive communication protocols. This ensures that expectations are clear for everyone on the team. Have protocols for how you plan to communicate externally and internally as a team. We have a “video on” approach. If you’re doing a video chat with anyone, we expect your video function to be on.
- Leverage all types of communication. This includes video, voice, text, email, and instant messaging. Our team utilizes all of these items, depending on the purpose. Quick questions? Slack. Meeting? Zoom. You want to ensure a good mix of asynchronous and synchronous communication.
- Overcommunicate. What feels like over-communication in a physical environment is actually normal communication in a remote environment. My staff might send big requests in email form, then follow-up with a direct Slack message, so I know to look for it. Know that there are places where urgent and non-urgent messages live. For example, if a team member needs help right away, send it to the whole Slack channel, don’t just ask one person. Also, if you see someone who isn’t communicating as much, invite them to speak up. It is key to employee engagement.
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?
The biggest change and challenge for our staff was schools closing during the pandemic. Since we were already remote, our team was used to working from home, but having their kids around was a whole new ballgame. They now had to manage their schedules and their children’s personal needs and school needs all day. We all needed to become a lot more flexible and forgiving of the new challenges everyone was facing.
We’ve found that leveraging VOIP software that is connected to cell phones or computers (like Grasshopper) has allowed our team to be flexible on their personal equipment usage. Also, leveraging other internal tools of communication, like Slack, Email, and Zoom, allows the company to provide other avenues to communication and reduces the time required on the phone.
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?
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
If there was something that allowed me to feel like I was physically in the same room as who I was talking to without being there, it would be great! Even better, if the device mimicked the location and let you change your apparel and enhance some of your bodily features. We could all live in sweatpants and never have to do our hair!
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?
Unified Communications has increased the appeal. Best-in-class tools typically do only one thing really well. For example, Zoom is great with video, but not so good if you want to text chat. Likewise, Slack is great at text chat, but their video isn’t as good as Zoom, and even less so if you’re talking to a large group of people. Unifying all the tools, so you could use one for everything would be amazing!
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?
VR really excites me as a potential option. The idea of being able to see someone’s full body language when you’re speaking to them virtually could only help some of the communication issues we all face.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
There was a Bruce Willis movie called Surrogate that showed a potential future where everyone was addicted to a virtual world. You could become anything you wanted to be, so people weren’t living in the real world anymore. I enjoy being outside and active with my family, so the thought of always living inside is a little scary.
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?
Nothing has really changed in the way we interact with our customers. We’ve been remote since Reconciled was founded. Since the pandemic, we have noticed that more of our new customers are willing to work with a remote team. Companies are starting to reimagine their teams in a virtual environment and we’ve been able to help answer their questions about what it is like for our team.
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?
Really, it isn’t that different if you’ve got a good start to open communication with that team member. Constructive criticism shouldn’t be a surprise within your organization. Open communication should be the norm. But, when it happens, we like to use video initially. Then, we follow up with written communication about what we discussed in the video. That way our team stays on the same page all the time.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
We make sure our teammates have regular check-ins. This includes their supervisor, their team, and other team members they might not interact with regularly. We have an informal coffee break with me once a week. Also, we’ve got open lunch hours where you can pop into a Zoom meeting “lunchroom” and have lunch together. We’ve got Slack channels that have nothing to do with work and everything to do with personal hobbies — reading, tv, movies, kids, etc. We also have regular game time for our staff to play some fun games together and get to know each other.
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 would inspire people to intentionally seek others completely different from them in order to learn from them. Hopefully, everyone would grow in their own understanding of the world and learn to embrace the people around them. At heart, it would be a peacemaking movement that helped everyone see the value of every individual as human beings. And it would include a lot of eating together because food makes everything better.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow us on Reconciled’s website and social media channels to learn more about our remote bookkeeping options (https://getreconciled.co/) or you can learn more about me on my personal website (https://michaelly.co/)
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.