Less is more. Good communication and over-communicating is not about communicating more in terms of quantity. To the contrary, it is about respecting the others and being more attuned to what each person needs, being more focused on the exchange. Folks who work from home do not want to have their home invaded and being watched over their shoulder. So, try to be minimalistic when you take the initiative of communicating. However, be maximalist when people need to talk to you: let them express what they need to express, listen their frustrations, and help them see beyond these frustrations.
The problem with the less is that you do not want to make people feeling abandoned.
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 interviewingPhilippe Barbe.
Philippe Barbe is a leader, expert and noted advisor in data science, AI, and mathematics, with a wide range of experiences in business, industry, government and research and a very substantial international experience.
After some noted work on the cost of unemployment in France, he worked for 21 years as mathematician at the prestigious Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France. He collaborated with teams from very diverse backgrounds on multiple continents. He was invited professor in numerous universities worldwide, including Yale and Georgia Tech. He is the author of 5 books, many scientific papers, and gave conferences to audiences ranging from a few to over 1,000.
Since 2014, he is based in the US, working in health care, IoT, and media. He lead high performing data science teams. He was the head of Data Science at Videa, a Cox Enterprise company, from 2015 to 2020.
As a consultant he helps corporations with their vision and strategy, and any problem related to information, data, algorithms and mathematics at large.
Philippe Barbe holds a degree in economics and government affairs from ENSAE, a master in statistics, and a PhD in mathematics from the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France.
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?
As a military brat, I got used to moving, discovering new places, leaving friends and making new friends, facing changes. I came to appreciate what each place teaches us, how we are all different and yet so similar. It made me curious about people and life in general.
That curiosity is reflected in my adult life which did not have a linear path and in which I reinvented myself a few times.
It started my career with some work on the cost of unemployment, and becoming an expert on the subject.
But I felt I wanted to acquire more knowledge in mathematics. I was good at it, and got a new start in writing my doctoral thesis quickly, and being invited to visit several universities in the US. I got an offer from the CNRS in France, which is very prestigious and was honored to join that institution. There I did research in mathematics and consulting in related areas. I was very fortunate to have collaborators across the planet, with very different backgrounds. I had to work with them while being very far apart, with communication tools that started as plain mail back in the early 90s, to email, to affordable phone calls, to free video conferencing!
In 2014, I decided to explore the business world, see how I could help with my ability to solve complex problem, and got another start. I had the good fortune to meet Ken Ferguson, the Senior Partner at Berkshire Executive Search in Atlanta, who saw my value beyond my previous roles. With his incredibly insightful advice and guidance I transitioned to a pre-capital startup specialized in health care and IoT. One thing leading to another worked for another startup and a large media group, in the media and advertisement industries.
This year, I finally decided to create my own consulting company, which is yet another start as an entrepreneur, specialized in what I call information based innovation. It has two aspects,
- helping companies to articulate their vision and strategy, an activity which requires innovative ideas based on information on the business and market environment; in a broad sense, solving problems that require very deep analyses.
- helping companies or governments with data science and mathematical issues at large, particularly when the standard techniques do not work and custom designed solutions are needed.
So, I am really interested in uses case where everyone else failed, which is a very challenging market.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
As someone who has done innovation all his life and is very much forward looking, the most interesting and exciting story is always the next one, it is always in the making!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“In every crisis lies an opportunity”. Very few people like crises. I do not like them either, but I take them as a gift, as a chance to reflect on what is important and what we do. A crisis is an opportunity for change. Something went wrong, so we are in a crisis. Can we fix that something? A crisis is an invitation to do something else, to move forward. Many people see crises as something that closes the future because it invalidates a model from the past; I see them as an opening toward something that we could not see before.
This impacted my life at various points. Like anyone, I had my share of professional and personal crises. But in all of them, I have been searching the opportunities. And each time I found one that gave me satisfaction and kept me going toward something that I did not expect.
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?
Beyond my immediate family, I was very fortunate to have many excellent teachers from kindergarten to postdoctoral time, and even after that, learning a lot from my collaborators. That had a huge impact on my life. But a mathematics teacher, Ms Lanaud really stands out. She was short, militant feminist, and by far the most demanding teacher I ever had. Totally outside any norm, if not reason. By demanding so much she gave us a lot. She wanted her students to succeed at all cost. She made us working like mad, and worked herself beyond reason, grading an astronomical amount of homework and tests. Once she brought back 3 homeworks, and the stack of paper she had graded was about her height… I remember the very first minute she entered the classroom at the beginning of the year. She walked in, said absolutely nothing, counted the students, and finally said abruptly and sternly: “60. This is too many. I will make sure some of you leave”. And on she went, starting to lecture, with no other introduction whatsoever. We were all determined, and only one left, even though we had 10 or 12 hours of math per week with her, which was a lot. She was brutal, merciless, but she had decided that we would be amazingly successful and really believed in us. And we all have been amazingly successful! I owe her a very impressive training and an ability to concentrate and work intensely over long periods of time. I am extraordinary grateful to her for the training she gave me.
She also taught all of us that with desire, willingness and perseverance, the most impossible things become possible. She taught us not to give up when facing adversity. She is an amazing person, and I stayed in touch with her for some years.
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?
Before I answer your question, I should say that in some sense I went the opposite of everyone else! Between 1992 and 2014, I worked mostly with remote collaborators. That gives me an historical perspective on the matter, with my experience predating the internet and even affordable phone calls.
I see three main benefits to teams being physically together:
1. the communication is easy. We see the people, the expression on their face, how they walk, how they dress. We hear them breathing. We are not judging, but we sense the mood, how the day is going. It helps to set the tone for communication: someone having a bad day needs more attention.
I also discourage teams to send email to discuss a problem when they can just walk and discuss it in person. Being in person allows to seize a lot of nuance that are not always expressed by words. Sometimes people use their hands, make a face, tap their feet, cross their arms… We listen words but we also get information from postures, movements, and sometimes hearing subtle changes in breathing.
It is actually amazing how the simple fact of wearing a mask which hides the lips make us less able to perceive joy, sadness and overall facial expression. The mouth area seems very central to facial expression, which is something I realized during this pandemic. But maybe this is because I am not very good at reading the eyes.
2. there is a sense of togetherness and shared experience. Some projects are harder than others. Succeeding to accomplish them collectively gives a strong sense of achievement and a strong feeling that by working together we can accomplish a lot. Being physically together allows us to celebrate and emphasize success, feel the shared experience, take a couple of hours around a meal or a drink to reflect informally on what we enjoyed, what we liked or dislike, self-indulge in moral boosting and stress relieving talks. It builds bonds between people, which is good for the moral and the team stability.
3. being together, particularly if you work in a large corporation allows you to bump into all sorts of people in common areas, like hallways, elevators, eating spaces like cafeteria or common room, parking lots… There is a spontaneity in the exchanges that is lost not as much by being remote than by social distancing. I can perfectly imagine teams being distributed and yet everyone recreating these informal meetings in other spaces unrelated to the company, like meetups or other venues. In some sense, this could be even better than being in a company building, for you would run into people in different companies, different industries, and have interactions that really open your mind. So the current challenges are just as much about being remote as being somewhat isolated.
That reminds me Los Alamos National Laboratory where I was invited some years ago. They had cubicles arranged so that everyone around you would come from a different discipline! It is very much like a company sitting employees so that you would not be next to the folks in your unit, which I think is a great idea.
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?
Overall, the challenges mirror the benefits: communication and cohesion may be harder.
However, I would distinguish three aspects in your question: one which is about not being in the same space, one which is about the challenges created by the specific space people are in while being remote, and one which is about being isolated because of social distancing or other reasons.
The challenges of not being in the same space is pretty much a mirror of the benefit of being at the same location: communication as we do it in an office is harder, and cohesion of the group is not as obvious to achieve.
Some spaces, like home, create specific challenges. Your coworkers may see inside your home, your belonging, what is on the wall, have an idea of your taste. This is why some use background images when video-conferencing. Some employees may have their family around, kids popping for help for homework, spouse or partner coming to ask whatever question. It is in some sense no different than people coming to ask you a question in an office, or interrupting a meeting, except it is now personal. I do not see this as a problem as long as people remain focused when they have to. But there is a little barrier of comfort to pass: not everyone feels comfortable giving a glimpse, be it accidental, of their personal surrounding or their loved ones. That goes both ways: seeing the video feed may make you feeling like intruding. Since the vast majority of people behave professionally while video-conferencing, the best is probably to accept things as they are, acknowledge the reality if needed, and just move on.
There may be also an additional important challenge, which I think is key and is somewhat hidden when people are together in an office. The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera wrote that “culture is the memory of the people, the collective consciousness of historical continuity, the way of thinking and living.” There is a lot to say on the 3 parts of this excellent definition, and I even wrote an article on this. The relevance to working remotely is in the third clause, “the way of thinking and living”. Rephrased bluntly, it says that culture is what make people do what they do when there is no supervision. A company with strong culture does not have much communication problem: people know what to think and therefore what to do.
As a consequence, the challenge of not being in the same space is not only a challenge to the communication: if you have not thought of your company’s culture, it may challenge you to reassess it. And to tie it to what I was saying that every crisis contains an opportunity, it may create a crisis that gives you a unique opportunity to fix your company culture. In that respect, having to work remotely is a very powerful force of progress for companies that seize the opportunity.
How much should I discuss the challenges of being isolated? This in itself is a whole world!
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.)
With this type of question, I never know if I should order the 5 things in increasing or decreasing importance or in random order! So, here it is… numbered!
1. I often need to write when I talk with collaborators. Some of this writing may contains some mathematics, which is really cumbersome to type. Sometimes I also need to draw. So I took a camera tripod, made a simple attachment with a clamp and a piece of wood that can hold a webcam over a page, making it easy to read what I write for whoever I videoconference with.
Sometimes I also use a projector instead of a screen. If I talk with someone, that gives me that person more or less in real size, projected on the wall. It creates an experience which is closer to a real meeting.
I have a standing desk, and I like to move a bit when I talk. I do not hesitate to place the camera far away so that as I am moving I can still be seen. Sometimes the camera captures the whole room, and then I can really walk around as I am talking.
People need to be bold and creative, not be afraid to look weird, and figure out what work for them. The direction though is to do whatever is needed so that the technology does not get in the way. A meeting is about communicating, not about the technology. So we need to bend the technology to our needs, and not bend our thinking to what the technology or its standard use may invite us to do.
I also do not hesitate to change the medium and the context. Sometimes, I do not use videoconferencing but I have phone calls. If I anticipate that I will not need to write, I may use the phone and take a walk outside as I am talking. I give incentive to my correspondent to also take a walk. Video can be distracting. When calling, one can concentrate more easily on the voice and the content.
Surprisingly, I find the good old mail has also a lot of virtues when possible. It is slow, allows to think, and ponder. Because of the slowness, it puts far less stress and allows more careful considerations. Putting your thoughts slowly on a piece of paper with a pen is a great way to force yourself to be very thoughtful. Writing by hand is certainly one of the best tools at our disposal to have thoughtful communication and it is way underutilized. It requires to have a sound perspective on what is important and what is not, and a different way to manage time. I still write letters to collaborators when it is not time sensitive. Maybe some discussions that usually take place in one-on-ones about career goals and professional development can fruitfully be moved to snail mail. In some sense this very much like forcing people to prepare before a meeting. Why would you want to walk into a meeting without thinking on what will be discussed first? The old mail is a meeting well prepared!
2. Manage time and silences. I find the time to work on a project is the same whether people are in the office or not, but how this time is occupied is different. In an in-person meeting, we may spend several hours discussing something and brainstorming. There may be long silences where each team member works on something for 10 minutes or even an hour. Somehow, in an online meeting, there can be something odd about having a long silence or people working in their corners when the camera is on. Maybe this is because we are missing hearing the breathing, the occasional puffing of the team member who is getting tired, the swearing that takes you out of your thoughts… These subtle or not so subtle signs give us a feeling of togetherness, while a silence in a video-call may give us the sense of isolation. If you cannot mentally solve this silence problem, I find it works better to have short sessions, very focused, set goals, totally disconnect, no phone, no email, no instant messages, and agree to reconvene a couple of hours later to see where everyone is. So, meet less, but more focused.
3. Less is more. Good communication and over-communicating is not about communicating more in terms of quantity. To the contrary, it is about respecting the others and being more attuned to what each person needs, being more focused on the exchange. Folks who work from home do not want to have their home invaded and being watched over their shoulder. So, try to be minimalistic when you take the initiative of communicating. However, be maximalist when people need to talk to you: let them express what they need to express, listen their frustrations, and help them see beyond these frustrations.
The problem with the less is that you do not want to make people feeling abandoned. And this leads us to the next item.
4. Be intellectually honest. This has several components.
Be realistic on how your employees behave when they are remote, and tell them about your realistic expectations. I cannot over emphasize the “realistic” aspect. For me, I tell employees and collaborators that it is ok that they go to do their shopping, jogging, nap, whatever during business hour. I sometimes do it and I am not hiding it. To the contrary, I make it known so that people know what to expect. If everyone is clear on when he or she is available, it is easier to organize the work. There is an expectation about checking email, about being available, about setting priorities and making your personal life less a priority than your work at certain hours. I expect team members to make themselves available for scheduled meetings during business hours, because otherwise the group cannot function. Because of the nature of what I do, I seldom need team members to answer within less than several hours, even though that can be frustrating to have to wait! But there are exceptions, and these are clearly communicated, as much in advance as possible.
Acknowledge that you are forced to trust by default. Some companies place monitoring software to in fact spy on their employees. What does it say on their culture? If you do not trust your employees, why should they trust you? How can you pretend that your employees are the best and that they are excited to work for you?
As a leader or a manager, you should have an idea on how long a task or a project will take. You should discuss it with whoever will do the task, agree on a time frame, and trust. If things go wrong, you should enquire why, try to understand if it is legitimate.
The Quebecer singer Felix Leclerc had a song that says “the best way to kill a man is to pay him to do nothing”! Most people do not want to be killed, and are eager to work for what they are paid! So, trust them by default.
Going back to the culture, that culture comes from the top. If you want a company of people who trust each other, then start be trusting everyone from day one. Be honest about it. This not a lip service. It may cost you a little, but accept the risk. Trust.
5. Be adaptable. Not everyone requires the same thing. I ask each team member what he or she needs, and try to provide. I find it hard sometimes because some people work in ways very different than mine, but I try to accommodate, and I ask feedback to improve how I may help them.
I also do not take their answer as valid forever. Situations change, and we must adapt. So I get feedback with some frequency, maybe once a month or once every 2 months, depending on the person and the activity.
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?
Rhetorically, I see two parts in your first question: one which we already addressed about the general difficulty of communication remotely, and another one which is indicated by the other questions, that is more about the logistic.
I lived the pandemic both as an employee leading a team and now as an independent consultant. As an employee, I developed a very high level of trust in the company, in all directions, up, down, and sideway. I was working remotely 2 days a week, and sometimes I would work from abroad for a few weeks, managing my team from far away, on different time zones. When the pandemic hit, it did not make much difference. We were used to be remote. The company always allowed people to use their own phones; I had my cell phone number on my business card. We had company issued laptops, so taking them home was no problem. Some took their multiple monitors home too to reproduce the office setting. Overall, the company was very accommodating, and things went very smoothly.
As a consultant, the way I work is very similar to the way I worked as a mathematician for over 20 years. Everything is mine!
Of course, like others, I went through various technology issues at the beginning: there are many video-conferencing systems, of unequal qualities… I also had a fairly slow internet, which was fine when I was alone at home, but turned to be too slow when everyone at home was taking some of the bandwidth. So we had to upgrade our own infrastructure, which was painless.
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?
Let me try to take a long view on that question. Videoconferencing has been around and affordable for some years already. And so are the other tools I use, email, phone, and mail. So there is nothing fundamentally new that was developed during the pandemic. But some products obviously got better, and there is now a wider range of products than before.
I have been really enjoying the combination of a projector and video-conferencing. It is very nice to be able to see people in their real size, from the same distance as they would be in life. I can talk to them standing, sitting, moving around, more than in in-office meetings sometimes! It is very lively.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
I am not sure! We can go in the direction of more technology, something more immersive, from 3D goggles to holograms in the room, some sort of super high quality real time virtualization of the reality. I see businesses where this would be really helpful.
Something that could recreate the unexpected interactions that you may have in a gathering, bumping into people you do not know, some sort of immersive cocktail party, without having to wear tons of expensive gears that make you looking like an astronaut! That would address the need of my business self.
My technical self has more concrete needs: as I said, I sometimes need to write technical stuff, and interact with others on that technical stuff. So a sort of very large interactive whiteboard, that the whole team could write on at the same time, like a real whiteboard, would be great. To some extent, it already exists, but it is way too expensive for everyone to own.
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?
Yes, it has changed, in two ways, and in two ways that work against each other. What I mean is that there is something nice about having unified front-ends and logics, devices that work in the same ways. It obviously makes much easier to go from one device to the other, and it also makes much easier to seek help when something does not work as expected: in a large corporation, the chances that you are the first running into an issue is small and you can ask around for help, which is nice.
But it has also change in a different way, by precisely pushing for more unification. What we lost is stimulating imagination and mental gymnastics!
This is a never-ending dilemma: we want both the same, because it makes life easy and flatters our laziness, and we want diversity, because it enriches us and makes us better by demanding more of us.
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?
I find these reality related technologies very interesting. Their potential is very exciting. Yes, they should be able to bring us closer to being together when we are in fact remote. But that is a view setting its own failure, because it contains implicitly the premise that these technologies are only substitutes for the real thing! There is of course a great value in this substitution, but it should not be the sole value.
In fact, I am very hopeful about immersive technologies that will allow us to interact with information. It will require some training and skills but here is an example. We live in a 3-dimensional space made of width, height and depth. But as a scientist, I sometimes need to manipulate information that lies in dimension greater than 3. It is conceivable that interactive and immersive systems will allow us to experience information in larger dimensions, gain fundamentally new insights on important problems, will require us to think very differently. It pushes us toward the unknown, and I find this both fascinating and exciting.
Overall, I am hoping that we will see big improvement in human-computer interaction, both in cognitive terms and in terms of physical interactions, and that they will go in different ways than our interaction with human: speaking to computers is technically interesting, it has its usefulness, but I can talk to humans and have this very rich and meaningful conversation that we are having now. So, I am not seeking to substitute that experience. I hope we will be able to interact with computers and machines in an enriching yet totally new ways!
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Yes, and I was going to add about it.
I also remember another technology that excited me very much 30 years ago, the Imax theaters. At the beginning I found it somewhat of a nice entertainment. But in the early 90s, I saw a movie shot from the space shuttle, showing parts of the earth. I had learned in geography that the Nile river created this fertile valley in the middle of the desert. And suddenly I could see it and experience it from the space. It was suddenly such an evidence, that there was nothing to learn, and I could remember it for the rest of my life! I thought that technology would make a fantastic learning tool, that there should be plenty of movie made to teach geography! Now, 30 years later, how many Imax movies have been made for the purpose of teaching and learning? Not many!
All these technologies are exciting for what they may allow us do. But I am unsure about our immediate wisdom.
When you look at long term trends, over centuries, life seems easier now than ever in many places in the world, though not all. In many countries, more and more people have more and more free time, because technology yields amazing gains in productivity. That means that people want to be entertained in their free time. If all these technologies to be invented are used for the sole purpose of entertaining people, then it may prevent social unrest, but does it make us better? I hope we will find ways to leverage these technologies to improve outcome for everyone beyond mere entertainment.
The other aspect is that it is easy to turn technology into a discriminating and submissive enterprise. What I mean is that there are multiples expectations or assumptions set around technology, including sometimes that everyone uses it. It is important that people can still get some basic services and fulfill their social needs even though they may not use technology.
Another example is how products are made to be addictive, pushing the attention economy. We are seeing some issues with the reality being distorted for the purpose of grabbing attention. A totally dystopian vision would be that people would live their lives in virtual realities, lonely in their room, interacting with computers that project them a total self-fulfilling fantasy, making everyone so self-centered that we would not be able to collaborate anymore.
What makes me optimistic though is that we cannot escape our human condition. We have to eat, and that is something that fundamentally grounds us in the reality. It also limits the potential of the attention economy: at the end of the chain, farmers do the real job of providing some very tangible food, and that is an unescapable reality that no virtual reality can take away.
As a leader, I feel it is one of my responsibilities to influence however I can so that technology will help people to live a fulfilling life.
I cannot remember which philosopher pointed out that technology and the way we live has changed dramatically since the Greeks. Yet, the Greek philosophers and the Greek plays deal with subjects that are still very much current and which still deserve a lot of our attention. So, for me the question of excitement is more about ourselves than about the technology proper. That being said, I am optimistic, and yes, excited and curious by how humans could interact with machines in the future.
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?
For me the change has been brutal. When the pandemic hit, the company was going through some dramatic turmoil for other reasons. Then I went on my own as a consultant, and I was not particularly well prepared either, but in a different way. I find it much harder to engage with customers because there is not good place to meet them and offer them our services. This goes back to this problem that we have been trying to replicate online what was designed for in-person. I have not yet found a satisfying networking event online.
Otherwise, interactions with collaborators have not changed much. I was well prepared for that inward facing part.
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?
I definitely agree that feedbacks are tricky and that the risk of coming across too harsh is very real. I approach that problem very directly.
Firstly, we need to give and receive feedbacks. This is not an option. So, embrace it!
Secondly, there are different types of feedbacks. Some are about what has been done. For instance, I may review the draft of a report, and find it too complicated. I would explain why, give some examples of what to do, and ask for improvement. Most of the time, if you give the reason of your judgement and are willing to discuss it, people accept it. More complicated are feedbacks on less tangible thing, like career development. For those, we need to count on a third thing: time.
To elaborate, this is again about setting expectation. Scientific evaluation is far more brutal than anything I have seen in business! Far, far more. You learn that there is nothing personal about it, and realize over time that many criticisms were right. In a company this should be the same. Criticisms may come as harsh, but team members see the effects. Criticisms have consequences. It is up to the manager to dose these consequences well. A bad computer code may not take away a bonus. Many bad computer codes will. And a bonus is seldom something that you get on the spot. So you need to make your people understanding that criticisms are there to make everyone better. You need to let your team criticize you as a manager, and you need to set the expectation in terms of what corrective action needs to be taken, how performance evaluation is going to be affected on the long run. I think the problem you are mentioning is all the more real that people take a short view. To address it, see far away, give perspectives. In that aspect remote is exactly like in person. But indeed, because the medium is different, we need to get used to it. But be aware that the more you delay, the more you hesitate to give honest feedbacks, the harder it becomes to give honest ones. Like many problems, since you are going to face it, you may as well jump in it, solve it, and proceed.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
More than camaraderie, I think an excellent way to create deep intellectual connection is to write real letters. And for those who really do not like it, then informal phone discussions when taking a walk, talking about our lives, what interests us outside work, our loved ones, things we care about, even things we disagree about, is a good way to bond. Bonding seems very much about sharing experiences.
Cohesion is much harder, particularly in what I do which tends to be removed from the immediate need of production and seldom comes with very strict and tight deadlines. For a starter, having a clear sense of what the team tries to accomplish on the long run is a must, whether physically together or not. So have a clear vision. I have seen too often CEOs and executives with visions that are too tactical or do not pass 6 months, and this is why I decided that advising on vision would be part of my business. Other than that, going through difficult projects together is what I found the most effective. But you are not going to make projects harder for the sake of cohesion!
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. 🙂
That is a very meaty question indeed! And a fantastic question which is very humbling. So, first, thank you for asking it.
If you had asked about a business, I would tell you about my ideas on media! But you ask specifically for a movement…
When I think of history and people, as humans we have emotions. We probably need all our emotions. A constant joy would not be fun. We need some sad times to appreciate the joyful ones, and I would say to be a well-balanced person. But I see also that as humans we have been trying to alleviate our pains, knowing that some pains are unavoidable. We grieve our lost ones for instance, and that is part of our human condition. We will not change that, and even if we could, it would not be wise to do so. But there are pains that have no reason of being.
I remember as a child in the 70s, seeing footages of famines. There were famines because, beyond conflicts, there were simply not enough food produced on the planet to feed everyone. That pain got alleviated, at least at the moment. Older generations remember diseases like polio, and the pain it induced to scores of children and adults. That pain disappeared in most of the world, though not everywhere yet.
When I see the current pains, maybe I see two broad categories:
The first category are problem that require technical solution. For instance, few diseases have no reasons to exist anymore. Eradication programs have made big progress but we need to do more. We also need to do more to control what cannot be eradicated, and we must learn from how we handled covid 19, both in terms of what worked and what did not. These are problem that can be managed through technical solutions. The same is true for energy: we need to find ways to produce cheap sustainable energy. This is key to our future. I am absolutely convinced that scientists will find solutions provided the proper policies are enacted, improving education to get a larger pipeline of scientists, and funding the research that will bring the solutions.
The second category are problems that cannot be address by technical solutions. These are much more complicated to solve. An example is illiteracy. Humans have been writing and reading for between 10,000 to 5,000 years depending on what you call writing. In all that time, we found good ways to teach writing. Yes, some techniques may be improved, but overall, we know what to do. The problem is to set the conditions to do it and just do it.
In that category of problems that cannot be addressed by technical solutions, the main one that I see is that of bringing the world to peace and keeping it in peace. As a child, my mother lived the invasion of France by the Germans. To this day, in her 90s, she has vivid recollections on being on the road, attacked by planes, terrified to lose her life, to lose her parents, terrified also by what she saw. I also remember an extraordinary speech by John Kerry then Secretary of State, very emotional upon remembering touring with his mother their house in France after the war. They walked in their destroyed home, a home with which they are a great emotional connection. Just talking about these people and what they went through made me very emotional. Today, there are still people suffering that same pain of seeing their loved one injured, dying because people cannot resolve their differences peacefully. There are still people seeing their places ravaged because diplomacy failed at maintaining peace. The suffering that wars inflict to people of all ages is horrifying, both physically, emotionally and economically.
Now, why are people at war? I think it is ultimately very much related to the topic of this interview: lack of understanding, lack of trust, lack of meaningful communication.
So if I were to initiate a movement it would be one that make people communicating across borders, one that make people knowing each other better, and that would go much further the existing exchange programs. Very much in connection with what we have been talking about, and taking advantage of the experience we gained at working remotely during this pandemic, I would invite companies to make their workers to work remotely from places they really do not know, not with the purpose of being a tourist but with the purpose of meeting others. Call it the corporations without borders movement! I would love to see corporations making their employees and their families to live 6 months to a year in places abroad, particularly those that we do not know that well, or those that we may not go spontaneously, those that are all but tourist destination, those where your social life depends on your neighbors.
By luck I experienced that several times. Last time was 2 years ago when I worked remotely from Shenzhen in China, for not other reason than my family had to be there. I was not a tourist. We lived there in an apartment for several months, had neighbors, socialized with them. My son went to school there, my daughter interned at a company there. We knew China and had been there before. Yet, we learned a lot and can very much relate to the people there. The French diplomate Claude Martin pointed out in a marvelous book that diplomacy is an everyday dialogue between people from different country, and he meant not diplomats, but really the entire people of the United States say with the entire people of China, or Germany, or Canada, or… Iran! So I would love to see a movement that further and deepened that dialogue in a positive way, with corporations sending their employees and their families abroad, in nondescript places, to know ordinary people, further that dialogue, and ultimately build and preserve peace through mutual understanding.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I am not a big social media user, and I do not necessarily advertise for all what I do, but I am on LinkedIn and blog there as well as on my personal website. People are very welcome to connect on LinkedIn and go to my personal website, ph-barbe.com.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to help, and thank you for your work at large, informing and exposing people to diverse topics and views on these topics.