Feeling connected to your team — Zoom isn’t the same and nonverbal communication can get lost in emails. One of my planners came into the office often and we connected on a regular basis. She rarely called with problems, we talked them out in person instead. When we went remote for COVID, she began saving up her questions for a call. Before that call happened, she became so overwhelmed with all this pent-up anxiety that she wasn’t able to get off her shoulders. She called me in a ball of tears over something silly that put her over the edge, which never would have happened if we were not working remotely.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nora Sheils.
With over 18 years running award-winning planning firm, Bridal Bliss, founder Nora Sheils possesses an intimate grasp on the ins and outs of the wedding industry. In her time working with countless couples and leading a team of 30+ women, she recognized a need for a more effective, streamlined approach to the often-daunting contract and invoice process. Thus, in 2018, Rock Paper Coin was born in partnership with her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, and the two have been committed to bringing together event professionals and couples ever since.
Nora’s industry experience has led her to become a thought leader in the way of project management, operational efficiency, business expansion, and team dynamics. Her expertise extends to event professionals who discover increased productivity through Rock Paper Coin, as well as those who hear her speak onstage. As a well-known and sought-after speaker in her local speaker circuit, including with associations like ILEA Portland and Seattle Business Babes, Nora is always prepared to share her favorite strategies for simplifying, refining, and refreshing business workflows. She was recently recognized by Portland Business Journal in its 40 Under 40 series.
In her spare time, Nora can be found spending quality time with her family, often over a long family-style spread of food and a glass of great sparkling wine. She also appreciate the chance to explore the vibrant culture and food scene of the Pacific Northwest, particularly in her beloved hometown of Portland.
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 am a true Portlander, which is hard to come by these days. Born and raised in the City of Roses! Born to Iraqi immigrants, I was raised in a culture of over-the-top celebrations and, from the beginning, event planning was in my blood. After graduating from Gonzaga University (Go Zags!), I started Bridal Bliss in 2002, slowly growing the company to become a team of 30+ women who produce upwards of 120 weddings and events each year. In 2016, my sister-in-law and I noticed a gap in the planning industry and developed Rock Paper Coin, a forum that brings together event professionals and couples to streamline the often-daunting contract and invoice process.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
An interesting story is how I first got my start! Had it not been for Gonzaga University’s Hogan Entrepreneurial Program’s Business Plan Competition in 2002, I’m not sure I even would have started a business. I was a psych major and business minor, so I wasn’t confident in my abilities to start or run a business without any experience. It felt like a pipe dream until I entered the competition with a friend and my wedding planning idea. I received the support of professors and local businesspeople and we won! It provided me with my startup costs right out of college and, at that point in my life (22 years old!), I had nothing to lose. I hit the ground running, filled my days meeting local event professionals and booked my first few clients. The rest is history!
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?
This story absolutely wasn’t funny at the time, but here goes. In my early years of wedding planning, I was working with a client on their invitations. We fine-tuned the design, then focused on wording and adding in all of the information. However…there was a huge oversight made on my part. The address listed for the church was the church’s business office address, not the actual church address! Thankfully, the business office was only a few blocks away and we were able to station a planner on-site to guide guests in the right direction day-of. Because, of course, it wasn’t discovered until the day-of! I was absolutely mortified! That mistake was certainly never made again and has now become part of our new planner training.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Nothing kills an employee’s morale like being micromanaged. Provide them with the tools and resources to do their job and then give them the autonomy to learn and grow. Mistakes are how people learn and we’ve all made more than we can count throughout our careers.
In addition, give your employees flexibility for when and where they work. As long as they provide good customer service and do their job well, why does it matter when and where they work? Give and encourage use of vacation time — recharging is important for everyone from the highest level executives to your entry level employees.
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?
We expanded Bridal Bliss into a new market ten years ago. It was at this time that I began managing a remote team and have done so ever since.
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?
- Feeling connected to your team — Zoom isn’t the same and nonverbal communication can get lost in emails. One of my planners came into the office often and we connected on a regular basis. She rarely called with problems, we talked them out in person instead. When we went remote for COVID, she began saving up her questions for a call. Before that call happened, she became so overwhelmed with all this pent-up anxiety that she wasn’t able to get off her shoulders. She called me in a ball of tears over something silly that put her over the edge, which never would have happened if we were not working remotely.
- Work environment — At the office, we can control the environment. However, when someone is working remotely, their environment impacts their work but it’s something I don’t have control over. Several of our team members have mentioned that what changed their remote experience from negative to a positive was finding a space in their home that was a designated work space. Not the kitchen table, not a couch, but what felt like their office. It had to be cozy, styled, void of distractions and a place where work would get done.
- Tracking productivity — I am absolutely not a micromanager, but I do appreciate formal monthly check-ins with updates on each planner’s progress. If work is being completed in a timely manner and clients are happy, then I’m happy. However, for those employees who need a little more of a nudge, there are many time tracking tools to keep them on track. For employees struggling to complete their tasks on a regular basis, it is so helpful to have a history of their productivity as we brainstorm solutions or as a worst case scenario have to terminate the relationship.
- Team building — Without face-to-face interactions, building interpersonal relationships between the team is tough. We tried to combat this by planning step challenges, treating our team to ice cream deliveries and playing a guessing game to determine which flavor fit who best, or even hosting a virtual drag event. Sure, we are not all together in a room, but we are still laughing and bonding together as a team.
- Hiring a remote employee has its challenges as well. During COVID, we hired three new key employees. Without being able to train in person, we had to do our best with Zoom, screen shares and multiple meeting times to get the basics across. Each employee has a mentor that is holding their hand through the process in such a weird learning environment. As a firm believer in learning by experience, this was a bit difficult to achieve. However, we made sure with what little action there was at the time, our new employees took part.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
- Walk and talks — During check-ins, encourage your team member to be on a “walk” with you. People can open up, talk more freely when walking outside as opposed to sitting at a desk. This could happen in person or over FaceTime as well! Just moving while talking will open up the conversation.
- Connect with everyone to see what they need to make their work environment successful for them. If that means providing more tools, you can know early on and set them up for success.
- Plan regular check-ins. Make sure your employees are happy, healthy and feeling supported.
- Plan team experiences! In person or digitally, there are so many things you can do to keep your team connected personally and professionally.
- Lead by example. Your team tends to follow your lead, so if you don’t show your face during a digital meeting, neither will they. Or, if you show up dressed sloppy/unprofessionally, so will they. Your actions will reflect your brand and your expectations, so walk the talk.
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?
Honest communication with examples is best. Instead of going over work that has been done in the past, focus on what should be done in the future. Concrete, actionable items are key to a successful deliverable. In addition, start with the good! Build your employees up by giving them good feedback first, and then sharing the areas in which they need some attention.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
Constructive criticism is actually best shared over the phone. An email can be sent to open the conversation or set a meeting. Send an agenda and give your employee an opportunity to discuss anything on their end as well. An email is also a great tool for a follow up and reference to the conversation. This being said, the bulk of constructive feedback should be done verbally. This is absolutely a conversation that could go sideways if tone is lost.
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 transition from working in an office to working remotely is more difficult for some than others. With so many distractions at home (spouse, kids, chores, snacks…so many snacks), it can be hard to focus. Give your team some time to build their own routines and get used to the new normal before scheduling regular meetings or requiring constant communication. Scheduling regular check-ins or virtual team building activities can help, but it cannot be too much. Once the team has a better sense of comfort with this new way to work, you can expand the expectations placed upon them.
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?
Open communication and team outings. Even if the “outings” are in each person’s home, you can send ice cream before the meeting, cocktail kits, or schedule an Airbnb Experience for team building. You don’t have to discuss work or have an agenda — these events can be just for fun to allow your team to let loose and build relationships.
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’m not sure if this is necessarily the most amount of people, but it would certainly be significant. I would love to start a movement advocating for more female-owned businesses. Rock Paper Coin has not one, not two, but three women at its core as founders, which is incredibly rare.
I will be honest and tell you that starting out in a male dominated industry was incredibly daunting and intimidating. Elizabeth and I are moms with young children and between managing our families, responsibilities at Bridal Bliss and then a brand new tech startup, we were exhausted. The support isn’t there for women and certainly not for mothers. Successful female executives have strength, resiliency, and grit, but they are also empathetic, flexible and willing to go the extra mile for the good of the team. We need more of this in our lives and in society as a whole!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the quote from Jim Collins from his book Good to Great:
“Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”
This really sticks with me and proves to be true over and over again. If you would have told me Bridal Bliss and Rock Paper Coin are where they would be today, I would not have believed you. But getting the right people into the right roles on the team allows for us to have a team that works well together, respects each other and believes in the core of the product.
Thank you for these great insights!