Natalia Cieslak of Appjobs: “Work-life balance”

Work-life balance — This is especially hard when an employee is in a different time zone from the majority of the team which can create a mismatch between working with the team and personal hobbies or spending time with family. I’ve seen with people working from the US or in a different timezone that work-life balance can […]

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Work-life balance — This is especially hard when an employee is in a different time zone from the majority of the team which can create a mismatch between working with the team and personal hobbies or spending time with family. I’ve seen with people working from the US or in a different timezone that work-life balance can be hard. Either the employees have to adjust their schedule to be closer to the schedules of their colleagues which can be hard to do with 8 hour time differences or employees have to wait longer for replies and do not get feedback when necessary which can effect work flow. Being physically in same place eases communication.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalia Cieslak, Head of Member Growth and Director of the Future of Work Institute at Appjobs.

Natalia Cieslak grew up in Poland and currently resides in Italy where she remotel manages her team of 20 employees. Natalia has worked for digital startups for the past ten years and is currently the Director of the Future of Work Institute as well as the Head of Member Growth at Appjobs. Her educational background is in Economics and Politics and she has experience working with United Nation processes. The foundations of her work are based upon a strong remote work culture and testing the latest innovations with the assistance of her team.

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 was born and raised in Poland where I went on to study politics and economics. In the beginning of 2020, I moved to Pescara in Italy which was a big change not only culturally but also due to the corona pandemic which broke out just a month after I moved there. For ten years I have been working with startups, currently I’m at Appjobs but previously I was a Programme Manager at three other startups where I managed and streamlined IT related products.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The very first IT company I worked at was building a very similar mobile application to Uber, even the functionality was almost the same. It was the first real IT product that I worked with. I remember when we were drawing sketches on paper. At that time, it was the biggest mobile investment in Poland. Uber had yet to become available in any country. However, the startup failed not because of the market, but because investors were not ready for such an innovative solution. I took away from this experience that the greatest idea can start from one paper sketching and that it is important to be driven, and stubborn enough to believe in your product because the proof of a successful product and the opportunities that may be presented are not always obvious in the beginning.

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?

My first experience working in an international environment was with an English company and during the first few months of work I had many cultural misunderstandings. For the first 6 months, I didn’t understand my colleagues’ jokes as British humor is generally understated, sarcastic and a little cynical. I would also often physically collide into my colleagues getting on and off elevators or walking through doors because they walk on a different side. From this I learned to make micro investigations regarding the cultural differences of my “close” colleagues or team.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Every company and team has its ups and downs and we usually tend to think that the “downs” are when we should start acting to improve the situation. However, a crucial first step to avoid burnout is to prevent physical and emotional exhaustion. One of the main factors behind burnout is simply having too much work which can be an even greater concern for remote workers.

In order to avoid this, ensure that the company goal is clear so employees know what they are to strive for and thus can optimize team workflow together while also bypassing unnecessary work. Allowing employees to work outside of the box in ways that they enjoy is another way to promote innovation to help the team and company grow as well as bolster employee satisfaction.

Lastly, 1–1 meetings are a great way to discuss the aspirations and goals of individual employees and to then help them develop and grow based on their interests and desires.

Implement workflow optimization

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 2 years and with a remote team for over 6 years. Previously I was managing a team of 50 people over four different time zones from India to the west coast of the United States. In my current position, I’m the head of 20 internationals from Poland, Uganda, Uzbekistan, Spain and Italy, all with the purpose to drive member growth for Appjobs, the world’s largest gig platform. Appjobs was a remote-first company even before the start of the pandemic. We believe in the power of being a multicultural company that focuses on diversity and does not see physical locations as a limit, rather as an opportunity to hire the most highly skilled professionals.

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?

1. Different cultures. When working with international teams, miscommunication due to differences in cultures can often be exacerbated by virtual communication, which can naturally be expected. As I experience working alongside Brits, they are extremely polite and more passive when communicating when compared to Polish communication style.

2. Work-life balance 
This is especially hard when an employee is in a different time zone from the majority of the team which can create a mismatch between working with the team and personal hobbies or spending time with family. I’ve seen with people working from the US or in a different timezone that work-life balance can be hard. Either the employees have to adjust their schedule to be closer to the schedules of their colleagues which can be hard to do with 8 hour time differences or employees have to wait longer for replies and do not get feedback when necessary which can effect work flow. Being physically in same place eases communication.

3. Transparency and open processes within the company. 
When working at an office people often have a feeling of things being more transparent because they can see who their boss is having a meeting with, during a coffee break a colleague might naturally share what they are waking on at the moment and you see what a colleague is working on. Sitting alone at your computer at home can make you feel isolated, but there can also be a lack of insight of what others are doing. This can lead to the misconception within teams that others are not working as hard which can ultimately be a cause for some tension.

4. Ensure a common company culture.

This is particularly important for a fast-paced startup environment as a lack of cultural fit can often translate to a misalignment on how to properly perform company workflow processes. To build a common company culture is super important to ensure people will want to stay and grow the company with you. It can take a while longer to implement a company culture if majority are remote. I can see that partly at Appjobs where the new employees have yet to meet each other due to the pandemic, while others whose been able to goo team and company outings are more integrated to Appjobs culture.

5. Low barriers for communication

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

I have seen that the four key factors for success are building the right tech stack, having a defined company culture, emphasis on strong and open communication and a thorough onboarding process.

The first must have is the right tech stack because that is the backbone of a remote team. Everything being used physically should be replaced with digital tools. Using a cloud service for documents and different communications tools for effective and productive work.

With regards to company culture and, Appjobs stresses a “naked” work culture and open communication, which means all work is done using collaborative, cloud based software and tools such as Google docs. We find this vital first and foremost as a startup because we often change direction quickly and this allows us to do so.

Communication and conversations within the company primarily take place in public Slack channels of the related teams so that everyone can be aware of what is going on. This allows for more eyes on upcoming releases to speed up the process of editing and revising as well as gives opportunity for feedback and peer review. Clear communication on priorities of the company as a whole and individuals teams is important thus company and team wide meetings where these goals and KPIs are reiterated is another integral part of Appjobs. Expectations on quality is another factor that is clearly defined by management. Lastly, we find it equally needed to have virtual beers and after work hangouts to promote a collaborative, close group of workers.

Finally, onboarding new hires has to be a smooth and thought through process. Organizing sessions to cover team KPIs, expectations, task descriptions, and team member job descriptions is vital. Detailing company culture on workflow and work processes as well as the company work mentality allows for new hires to understand how they can be successful in their role.

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?

Create relationships. Creating and maintaining trust is more difficult without physical interactions. So you have to let yourself be more human and this means not forgetting about small talk and sharing. Listen to others, be authentic and share a bit about your own life. This approach helps to make up for a lack of face-to-face communication.

Make clear priorities. Never sacrifice time when it comes to defining goals and priorities but instead extend it if necessary for clarity. To ensure effective production, understanding your goals is the most crucial part.

Make sure it is regular. Set up regular 360-degree feedback sessions for all team mates individually .

Remember to give well deserved recognition. Sharing messages in public chat rooms to appreciate the work of others is as important as giving constructive individual feedback.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

I make a point to not give feedback through e-mail or any other means of virtual messaging but instead through video calls. I believe that messaging can come off as more emotional than intended and text can often give room for many interpretations that may vary from the original intent of the message.

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?

A potential obstacle is updating current procedures in order to make them more remote friendly while also being beneficial for employees. For example, changing a meeting from two hours to one hour, as longer virtual meetings are overwhelming and proven to be more detrimental to efficient and effective work. Virtual meetings are mentally taxing so although more meetings might seem like a good idea when moving to remote work, it is better to keep meetings limited and concise.

Along with this, moving to remote work can often create distance and disconnect amongst team members that are accustomed to interacting with each other on a regular basis. Thus, it is important to schedule meetings that allow for social interaction as well as social meetings that are unrelated to work after working hours to connect with colleagues. Another part of connection that is important to remember is celebrating the “wins” of the company or within teams as they come about especially during uncertain times, for employee and manager morale alike.

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?

I think this depends on individuals. I have people in my team who love working remotely and naturally are more introverted. At the same time, I have team members who gain energy through social interaction and team outings, thus have been more negatively impacted by the pandemic. Working remotely under normal circumstances is very different from working remotely during a pandemic, so in one way it’s a shame people had to learn how to adjust under these conditions where meeting up isn’t a possibility. Under normal circumstances, we arrange outings for the different teams and the company as a whole at least 2–3 times a year. Even if remote work is productive and enables recruiting all over the world, nothing beats meeting up in person for getting to know each other.

Besides meeting up, it’s also important to prioritize each other’s needs outside of work, so we often remind employees to workout and get enough sleep. We encourage employees to take a break to go for a walk or workout and to take care of their mental health during these difficult times.

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. 🙂

“Virtual first!”

The pandemic brought a huge shift to remote working and many people have no desire to go back to the old style of office based, 9–5 work days. The pandemic showed that IT companies are the most prepared to successfully employ remote workers because they had already mobilised the necessary remote-working technology and adapted more easily. I would like to inspire a movement that helps individuals and companies shift towards and promote more hybrid working models within the future of work. I believe these models are best for work-life balance as well as for company growth and innovation. Now after almost a year of lockdowns, I think many companies would say now that they have a completely blank sheet of paper to build a new company model that is adaptable and optimized.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I don’t know who originally said it but I heard it very often from my parents: Sometimes there are moments to make a decision because you can’t cross a chasm in two small jumps and you can’t cross it in a series of little steps either. From this, I’ve made a couple of decisions, one the most important was completely changing my career path from political institutions to IT, which is where I am now with absolutely no regrets.

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