Nikola Baldikov: “Developing organizational culture”

It all starts with leading by example. As a manager you play a crucial role in setting the right expectations. Too many businesses don’t practice what they preach, saying that they care about a healthy work environment and then constantly making unreasonable demands of their employees, for example. You should also provide ample time and […]

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It all starts with leading by example. As a manager you play a crucial role in setting the right expectations. Too many businesses don’t practice what they preach, saying that they care about a healthy work environment and then constantly making unreasonable demands of their employees, for example. You should also provide ample time and space for employees to share how they’re coping with remote work. People want to be heard and have their concerns validated, which can be tricky in a remote environment.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nikola Baldikov.

Nikola Baldikov is a Digital Marketing Manager at Brosix, specializing in SAAS marketing, Search Engine, and outreach strategies. Besides his passion for digital marketing, he is an avid fan of football and loves to dance. Connect with him on LinkedIn or Twitter at @baldikovn.

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 began my professional career working in the National Bank of Bulgaria, my home country. During that time I decided to launch my own company selling unique t-shirts as a side job. I quickly had to develop marketing skills and contacts, and I had some great experiences working with influencers. Of course at the time I didn’t know them as influencers, since the term hadn’t become popular yet, but nevertheless we did some excellent marketing work together. It was exciting to find ways to advertise products that I cared passionately about. To this day I’m very proud of the experience that I gained through this business. In the end it set me on a completely different career path in the field of digital marketing.

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

It’s difficult to pin down one story in particular, but the most interesting aspect of my career has certainly been building friendships and partnerships with people around the world. Through this I’ve gained a global perspective, and gotten to know some amazing people.

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?

In the early days, when I launched my first business while working another job, I was so excited about my education and participating in as many online courses as possible that I went to work every morning exhausted. Looking back, this led to some humorous situations and mixups. If I had to start over, I’d try to spread this education over a longer period of time in order to find the right balance. I realize that when I’m tired I’m not able to retain as much information and my learning suffers, which is the case for most people.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Burnout is a challenging issue, but it’s important to understand that it can have numerous causes. Most managers try to jump into solution mode when they notice that their employees are experiencing burnout, without actually diagnosing the underlying problem. At times it may be that there really is too much work to be done, in which case there are several things a manager can do to address this. More often though, burnout comes from an internal drive within employees to constantly do more and more. This is a sign that employees care deeply about their work, but it’s not sustainable in the long run. In order to address this it’s important for CEOs and founders to set the right personal example and send the right messages. You can’t preach work-life balance and expect employees to achieve this when you yourself are working 14 hour days. Instead, lead by example and make real resources available to support employees in their quest for balance.

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’ve been managing a remote marketing team for over 5 years now. At different times my colleagues have been located in multiple countries across several time zones.

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?

Supervising employee work

Working remotely means that you’re not able to keep an eye on things as easily as working from an office. When working from an office it’s simple enough to pop into an employee’s room to ask a quick question or get a quick update on a task. Not so much when working remotely.

Maintaining employee engagement

Many employees, particularly those new to remote work, find it difficult to stay connected and engaged with their colleagues. I’ve noticed that there’s an initial period of excitement when beginning remote work, with numerous things like virtual happy hours and get togethers. With time though, this engagement usually falls off.

Encouraging innovation and creativity

Humans are social creatures that thrive on in-person interaction. For me personally my best ideas come through discussions I have with colleagues. When working remotely it can be difficult to replicate this creative energy.

Keeping track of complex projects

Remote work requires a high level of independence. It also requires the ability to stay on top of complex projects involving multiple colleagues from a distance. This is much easier to do when working side by side in an office space.

Developing organizational culture

Much like engagement, alignment around an organizational culture can also be difficult in a remote work set up.

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

Addressing all of these challenges requires 3 main things in my experience: the commitment to change, a plan to change, and the right tools to implement the change.

Supervising employee work

There are some technical solutions to online supervision, but it needs to be grounded in mutual respect and understanding for it to be effective. It’s important to have honest conversations with remote employees around how exactly your management style will look. Of course these shouldn’t be one-sided conversations, so take time to listen to your employee’s needs as well. In terms of specific recommendations, I’d encourage more frequent check-ins in order to keep track of progress and act as a thought partner as needed.

Maintaining employee engagement

When working remotely you need to make a conscious effort to keep your team engaged. One fun strategy I’ve used is having 30 minute happy hour type meetings several times a week where, on a rotational basis, team members lead the team in an activity. We’ve done yoga, drawing, cooking, etc. This was a great way of boosting team engagement when I noticed that it was dropping by reconnecting colleagues remotely.

Encouraging innovation and creativity

The most important thing you can do to encourage innovation and creativity in your remote team is to create the right setting for it. That means finding a way to connect your team and equip them with the tools they need to brainstorm and plan. There are several team communication solutions that can help in this regard, but it takes a manager to set these types of interactions as a priority.

Keeping track of complex projects

This is a challenge that requires a technical solution in my experience. There are a wide range of project management software solutions on the market, so it’s a matter of choosing one that works for you and your team. In an ideal world you could test out several options together before making a final choice. This will ensure greater buy in from your team.

Developing organizational culture

Organizational culture is a complex issue, even when your team is working from the same office. The best thing you can do when working from a remote team is to set up some ongoing routines that reinforce the type of culture you want. For example, setting aside time at team meetings where team members can celebrate success or thank a colleague, or sending out a weekly round-up email that highlights good examples of your organizational values.

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 off, I’d say you shouldn’t give high stakes feedback via email or instant message if possible. Reading feedback in such a message leaves too many things open to interpretation, and discourages dialogue. That’s why I always try to give constructive feedback using video calls. I want to be able to establish a visual connection with my employee, even if from a distance. This makes feedback much more personal and sends the message that you’re there to support your employee. I also make sure to set aside time during online team meetings to give positive feedback publicly. Celebrating good work is something the entire team should do as a way to develop positive team culture.

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

As mentioned above, I try to give constructive feedback ‘in person’ via video calls as much as possible. When I do have to give such feedback over email, which happens from time to time in urgent cases, I always try to depersonalize it and present the facts as they are. I start off by stating that I’m not giving this feedback in order to pass judgement on the employee, but rather to address a specific situation and align our expectations. I then outline objectively the facts of the situation, and describe how exactly this didn’t meet my and the team’s expectations. I then always present a way forward with concrete actions that the employee should take. I finish by mentioning something that I think the employee’s done well recently in order to reaffirm that I value them as a colleague.

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 most important thing is to be kind and supportive of one another. Such a sudden transition is difficult, and it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to pull it off completely smoothly. On my team, for example, I had employees who also had to deal with their children’s education due to school shutdowns. It’s important to discuss these challenges openly in a non-judgmental way.

I’d also recommend setting up a clear collaboration and engagement structure from the very beginning. This may mean setting up weekly team meetings on Monday morning, scheduling one-on-one check-in meetings, and setting aside some time for informal get togethers. Many people struggle with the lack of structure that can be present in remote work, so make this a top priority.

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 all starts with leading by example. As a manager you play a crucial role in setting the right expectations. Too many businesses don’t practice what they preach, saying that they care about a healthy work environment and then constantly making unreasonable demands of their employees, for example. You should also provide ample time and space for employees to share how they’re coping with remote work. People want to be heard and have their concerns validated, which can be tricky in a remote environment.

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’ve been thinking a lot about environmental issues recently. Even with the world’s attention rightfully focused on the COVID-19 crisis, there’s a looming environmental crisis out there. I’d really like to see more proactive leadership in this area among the business community mch beyond simple green initiatives. I think we need to harness our creative energy to really think through some of the tough questions around the environment, like how do we ensure a high quality of life while also protecting the environment.

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

I’m a big fan of the quote: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced” by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. It’s been a good reminder to open myself up to new experiences and not always focus on the next task ahead.

Thank you for these great insights!

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