As leaders,we are responsible for the inclusion of our employees. Even pandemic aside, many people often feel isolated or “I’m by myself” when working remotely. Humans are social animals. We need to belong to something. With remote work, many people lose that sense of belonging and feel disconnected. That’s not the employee’s problem. This is our problem. Now, many enterprises organize virtual happy hours, birthday celebrations, etc. to create that sense of camaraderie. It is not the same. Even when people are toasting a major project milestone in their homes among their virtual teammates, they often still feel alone. Leaders need to create time where the meeting is not about work but just a chance to connect.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neil Sahota.
Neil Sahota is an IBM Master Inventor, United Nations (UN) AI Advisor, author of the book Own the A.I. Revolution., and Professor at UC Irvine. He is a business solution advisor to several large companies and sought-after keynote speaker. Over his 20+ year career, Neil has worked with enterprises on the business strategy to create next generation products/solutions powered by emerging technology as well as helping organizations create the culture, community, and ecosystem needed to achieve success such as the U.N.’s AI for Good initiative. Neil also actively pursues social good and volunteers with nonprofits. He is currently helping the Zero Abuse Project prevent child sexual abuse as well as Planet Home to engage youth culture in sustainability initiatives. To really know Neil and his amazing accomplishments, you’ll need to scratch the surface by visiting his website: https://www.neilsahota.com
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’m the living embodiment of the one word every parent hates their child learning: why?
Beyond curiosity, I was born with an insatiable need to understand the value of items and actions. My parents also infused me with a strong desire to help people through community service. This combination defined who I was at a very early age.
Basically, I am the person that wants to solve the big problems, not just the problem at hand. As a result, I pioneered lots of new processes, models, frameworks, and patents. The latter would prove very important. They launched me down the path of artificial intelligence, which was an innovative and unfamiliar industry with a lot of new territory for me to explore. Here, I found an opportunity to help organizations understand how they could use AI as a tool for both commercial and social good. This really crystalized how much people should be the focus of “people, process, technology.” No matter what amazing ideas exist or the strength of the business case, if people don’t buy in, it isn’t going to work. This is my passion: to empower and connect people rather than leave them feeling fearful and excluded.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
My most interesting story has quite a global journey. It started in Washington D.C. At the request my great friend Stephen Ibaraki, I collaborated with Financial Services Roundtable on how the biggest Financial Services companies in the world could tap into emerging technology to transform their businesses before they got disrupted. After D.C., I left for Milwaukee to take care of some client business. While there, Stephen called me to express his gratitude for the help and told me he had an interesting opportunity. The United Nations (UN) was very interested in having me speak to them about Artificial Intelligence (AI). I had one of those moments, where I took a step back and couldn’t believe this was being offered to me. (Truthfully, I didn’t believe it. I seriously thought Stephen was playing a joke until he forwarded me the invitation from the Secretary General.)
One of the biggest challenges I faced was that most of the world leaders (at that time) thought of AI as “Terminator Time,” meaning, machines would conquer the world and eradicate humanity. So, I decided to focus on shifting this perspective by giving a very uplifting keynote on what AI is and how it is being used for public service and sustainable development goals. My speech was very well received. That night, I was approached by several world leaders and people from the UN leadership, including the Secretary General. The consensus was that my talk opened up their eyes to possibilities, and they wanted to do something while momentum was there.
But the question was what? After many critical discussions, we chose to create AI for Good– an initiative to use AI and emerging technology for the Sustainable Development Goals. Almost five years later, we boast a global ecosystem of partners and volunteers with 116 projects inflight with an unfathomable amount of positive social impact. I would have never guessed anything like this would’ve been possible as part of my career.
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?
Ironically, one funny mistake actually involved virtual teams. This was back in the day when outsourcing work overseas was just in its infancy. We had set up a team in India with the expectation that when we ended for the day, they would pick up the work. When they ended their day, our day was starting so we would carry it forward. It would be a true 24-hour workday– or so we thought.
We had a major issue that needed quick resolution that was handed off to the team in India. We asked them to fix a problem and confirm if they understood what happened. The next morning, the issue was resolved. While the India team said they had fixed it, we still didn’t know what happened. I sent an email asking, “Do you know what caused the problem?” The following day, I got an email back that just said, “Yes.” So, I emailed back, “What happened?” The next day, I got this response, “We fixed the problem.”
Rather than be frustrated, I just burst out laughing. I learned that cultures are different and to be more prescriptive. More importantly, I learned to spend time with remote teams and build relationships with the people. By doing this, we were able to work effectively together because there was a more intuitive understanding on what information and actions people are expecting. It has been a powerful lesson throughout my career as I have essentially worked in a virtual office for almost twenty years!
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
This is a great question because it is such a HUGE problem! Most leaders don’t even realize what’s happening until it is too late. I have two key pieces of advice here. First, slack time is a must-have. Second, make sure people take “me time,” that goes for leaders as well.
To start, slack time is creating open time for employees. Most leaders are obsessed with productivity, and rightfully so since it is a major metric for us leaders. Yet, the problem is we end up slicing things up so that every second (and more so) is allocated for an employee. This is a huge problem that goes beyond the inefficiencies built into multi-tasking. If employees don’t have any free time, how will they ever innovate? Studies have shown that good employees with a few small pockets of open time at work will use this time to figure out how to do their jobs better. I’ve seen companies from innovative startups to Global Fortune 500 companies try to fill up every iota of time, but they wind up burning their employees out.
Next, everyone needs “me time.” Most organizations will pile on more and more work until the employee reaches a breaking point. The usual consensus is that the employee should help define the limits on workload. We should never let our employees reach a level of (near) breaking point though. This is how we lose great people. As leaders, it is our responsibility to make sure employees have sufficient downtime. After one of my peers left the company, I was asked to absorb their team of five employees. In getting to know them, I had a one-on-one with one of my new direct reports who was a good worker but not much promise in advancing within the company. During our first meeting, they told me how proud they were of never having used any vacation days in the last twelve years. I was mortified. In a calm, professional manner, I explained that this was not acceptable. If they didn’t use vacation time, I would note this in their performance review and reduce their score. They were shocked.
After a little back and forth, this employee requested two weeks of vacation time to take their family to Europe. I happily approved. When they came back, I got an immediate call from this direct report. They thanked me. They didn’t realize how tired and jaded they actually were. Their vacation was not just refreshing but helped them reconnect with their family and truly relax. After returning from vacation, this employee was even more productive and earned rave reviews from clients and teammates. Fourteen months later, this employee, who people thought didn’t have an opportunity for advancing in the company, received a promotion. This is why, as leaders, we must ensure employees get that “me time.”
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 over twenty years of experience in managing remote teams. This is not just people working in different countries but also people even working locally with no strong need for them to be in an office. I have managed direct reports, contractors, consultants, vendors, and even client employees remotely. Perhaps the most complex, I actively managed a team of people in thirteen different countries for five months on a very critical, time-sensitive project. How did we even get together for an all-team meeting? I instituted a policy of shared sacrifice, where time of our weekly team meeting rotated each week so that it was in the middle of the night for different people each week.
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?
- There is no professional and personal life separation. As much as we would like to keep things work related as leaders, it is not really possible in a remote work environment, especially during Covid. The average American works 9.4 hours a day. That number is higher for people who work remotely. When people are spending around 42% of their day (24 hours) working, it’s about work life integration. I had a situation where an employee who worked from home had a horrific tragedy. Their teenage daughter died in a car accident. Even a month later, it was apparent this person was not moving towards “alright.” This is where a leader must move beyond being the “boss” to being an empathetic person. I was genuinely concerned about the personal welfare of my employee and their family. There was no “professional life” and “personal life,” but just life. By offering that support and encouraging professional help, the employee was ultimately able to move on. However, without this support, it probably would not have happened. We forget how much of life is intertwined (or absorbed) by work.
- As leaders, we are responsible for the inclusion of our employees. Even pandemic aside, many people often feel isolated or “I’m by myself” when working remotely. Humans are social animals. We need to belong to something. With remote work, many people lose that sense of belonging and feel disconnected. That’s not the employee’s problem. This is our problem. Now, many enterprises organize virtual happy hours, birthday celebrations, etc. to create that sense of camaraderie. It is not the same. Even when people are toasting a major project milestone in their homes among their virtual teammates, they often still feel alone. Leaders need to create time where the meeting is not about work but just a chance to connect. When I was managing a team across thirteen countries, I started an internal channel for them to socialize. To drive this, I set up a weekly ice breaker question asking questions like what is your favorite movie, song, cartoon, or book? This worked wonders as it gave people a chance to open up, socially, without concern about backlash or unprofessionalism.
- As leaders, we are responsible for the resilience of our teams. At an office, it is more understandable to separate this out because of the normal, expected support groups. However, as we’ve seen with the two previous challenges, remote employees often lack these channels. Now factor in the added challenges with Covid-19, this problem gets amplified. Resilience is no different than other soft skills we expect like communication, collaboration, etc. So, we need to invest in this employee development. I had a protégé in Asia who was newly minted as a manager. In getting to know their direct reports, my protégé discovered one of them had issues with alcohol to cope with stress. Rather than get involved directly, my protégé said it was not their place to get involved in a remote worker’s life, and this employee was expected to find their own help. Sadly, this employee spiraled downward for the worse until they nearly beat their child to death in a drunken rage. Even though my protégé terminated this employee, these actions had a profound effect on the other employees. Feeling that their personal well-being was not a priority, most of their top 10% performers left the company within three months. The well-being of the child and retaining their best workers might have been better served if there was some investment in building resilience among the employees.
- Discipline is a must-have, not a nice-have. Being productive in a virtual office can be a challenge for some people because of the amount of distractions. Alas, some people may prioritize their personal indulgences over work during normal business hours. I had a newly, promoted direct report who was managing their first set of direct reports. For their very first hire, they brought on board a financial analyst to track and chase down the payment of client invoices. Within two months of the hire, I noticed my business unit had an unusually large accounts receivable, and it was concentrated on the portfolio of my recently promoted direct report. Speaking with them, I learned that they were having trouble with the financial analyst they hired. In fact, each time they called the financial analyst, this person either had the television on or was clearly not at home (with the sounds of a bowling alley, movie theater, or bar evident in the background.) I made it explicitly clear to my direct report that inappropriate reasons are not acceptable. Either they resolved this issue, or they would be terminated. The financial analyst was let go.
- Leaders must understand that a different modality has different metrics. People do what they’re incentivized to do. A remote workforce needs a different set of metrics to be measured upon as well as rewarded for doing. Too many leaders just try to apply the same in-person metrics and expectations, and they fail miserably. For example, I had an operations colleague that would call an all-hands on deck stand up meeting three times a day to deal with an urgent problem. Their team would congregate at 8AM, 11AM, 2PM, and 5PM every day with the goal of giving updates and requesting specific help from their teammates. These meetings would last 5–7 minutes. They started off being quite effective. However, to reduce costs, the client requested the teams to work from home. Unfortunately, my colleague’s model turned into an albatross. Replicating the exact same process, these standup checkpoints now went to 40 to 50-minute meetings with lots of offline follow up among the participants. These meetings degraded into sessions where the updates were essentially nothing because we were all too busy meeting with other people, and then preparing reports for the stand-up meetings. The main challenge was the informal, in-person updates no longer existed. People became siloed that this model was not effective for remote teams. Rather than adjust, my colleague just replicated what they were doing in person without consideration for the challenges of a remote environment.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
The oldadage “different strokes for different folks” comes into play. Remote work is DIFFERENT. We must shift our style, methods, and engagement as leaders to suit a remote work environment. As we saw from the previous examples, leaders must become empathizers, trust confidants, soft skill developers, resilience builders, and management innovators. Sounds like a lot of work? It is. However, there is no other way to be successful. As our employees must adapt to remote work environments, we must also tailor our leadership and management styles to suit a virtual workforce.
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?
First and foremost, give feedback on video. This gives your employee some body language to take into context. I have had several employees tell me that they appreciated the ability to look at me (via camera) to get a better understanding of what I thought was serious and what was more my ironic sense of humor. Even positive feedback should be done through video so that there is no misconception on the employees’ part on what you are communicating. It also gives us a chance to validate the employee understands what we are saying.
Second, stick to the facts. Be specific and cite examples on any feedback you provide. Keep judgement out as much as possible but focus on how people may have experienced the employee’s performance or lack of. I have found employees take this type of criticism less personally and focus on the actual behavior rather than make excuses.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
I try to avoid giving feedback by email unless it is something small like “make sure to check your grammar before you hit send.” Most feedback worth giving is worth doing over a call or video conference. This helps reduce misinterpretation or hard feelings by the employee. If it is major feedback, give it quickly by calling your employee. I’ve found that quick constructive, criticism can be incredibly useful to an employee as long as it is done real-time and professionally.
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?
The best advice I can give is to embrace the difference. We know it will be different, but many employees are still shell-shocked when they experience it. By encouraging them to embrace the difference, we are encouraging them to accept the change more readily. In turn, this empowers our employees to find another way to work with their colleagues. I had a superstar employee who worked from a traditional office for nearly ten years. However, after being promoted, they had to suddenly work with teammates around the world. They struggled mightily despite all the training we invested in preparing them for this shift. While they intellectually understood what was going to happen, behavior is much more difficult to change. I assigned two mentors and more frequent coaching sessions with my employee to really drive behavioral change. It took almost three months, but we got the employee where they needed to be.
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?
The critical item is to ensure a sense of belonging. If employees start to feel disconnected, the isolation will crush their morale and productivity. However, creating this sense of belonging is TOUGH. Too many leaders think having video conference calls and the occasional virtual happy hour solves the problem. It does not. Our employees need to feel connected to have a healthy and empowering work culture. To do this, we need to crate “social time” (akin to the “Me Time” I spoke about earlier.) Small things can make huge differences. In weekly team meetings, add to the agenda something a little more personal like what’s one thing you learned in the last week. Add in birthdays or work anniversaries. Create moments where people can share and connect over something good that is not directly related to their tasks at hand. These moments of sharing help build connection and make our staff feel like they still belong to something special.
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. 🙂
OMG! I think I have already done this with my collaboration with the UN to create AI for Good. We’ve helped millions of people so far! And we’re continually growing it. Does that count? Or do I need to find another initiative to work on? Hmm… I’d love to hear what the readers think.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite (and what I have based my life on) is the quote by Peter Drucker: “You cannot predict the future, but you can create it.”
Benjamin Franklin said the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I think he missed one BIG one: change. Change is always happening, and it is happening faster and faster. Too many people worry about what changes will happen and how they will impact them. That’s why I love Drucker’s quote. We often forget that we can be the driver for change. We can shape the future!
Taking this to heart, 𝗜 𝗲𝗺𝗯𝗿𝗮𝗰𝗲 𝘁𝗵𝗲 “𝗮𝗿𝘁 𝗼𝗳 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗽𝗼𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗯𝗹𝗲” 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗮𝗰𝗰𝗼𝗺𝗽𝗹𝗶𝘀𝗵𝗲𝗱 𝘁𝗵𝗲 “𝗶𝗺𝗽𝗼𝘀𝘀𝗶𝗯𝗹𝗲” 𝗹𝗶𝗸𝗲:
- Helping the United Nations create and launch their AI for Global Good initiative
- Pioneering the current artificial intelligence (AI) and leading the way to the 4th Industrial Revolution
- Convincing Global Fortune 500 companies to embrace risk and to forge the first-of-a-kind products and grow them into nascent markets and industries
Each one of us can be the driver of change and innovation. Each one of us can be a force for leadership in the virtual office. Each one of us can help our enterprises uber themselves before they get Kodaked! The first step is to embrace what Drucker said. Don’t worry about predicting the future. Just create it!
Thank you for these great insights!