The level of trust in the team — in the case of remote work, it must be much higher, based on partner relations. People are much more engaged when they feel you trust them and let them make their own decisions.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Piotr Sędzik, COO of Applover.
Piotr Sędzik — COO and Co-founder of Applover, a full-stack digital agency, honored in 2019 by Deloitte as the “Rising Star” in the CEE region and as a 24th Fast 50 company in 2020. Finalist of Forbes 25 under 25 in 2018. CEO of Smart Citizen, a company that studies urban agglomerations to improve the quality of life of their citizens.
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”?
Fro7G an early age, I had the belief in the back of my head that I would like to build something of my own in the future, something for which I will be responsible and on which I will have an influence. It gave me the conviction that it would depend on my decisions which way my target project would develop. Besides, maybe immodestly, but I always had an inner knack for doing business somewhere. The first opportunity came quite an extortion because at the age of 7 I went on a school trip and on the very first day I spent all the money my parents gave me on candy, comics and games. There were a few days left until the end of the trip, so I had to deal with it — I decided to sell hair gel to my classmates before each school disco. There were disco parties every day, the class was quite numerous, so I finally returned home with a large sum of money for a 7-year-old. In later years, when I was a teenager, I started a company that organized events for peers, then there were several unsuccessful startup projects, and finally, based on my experience in building products, my 3 friends and I decided that we would start a Full-Stack Digital Agency — and that’s how Applover was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It’s hard to choose just one. Working in the IT industry is interesting in itself. A lot of changes quickly, there are new things every now and then and you have to be ready to implement innovations all the time. Besides, IT is mainly young, ambitious, dynamic people, so it’s hard to get bored with them. It has its advantages and disadvantages, of course, but in terms of the dynamic development of the company, it definitely has more advantages.
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?
It is difficult to choose one story, as for over 4 years of operating there were many. But probably one of the funniest ones was when we went to a fairly large industry conference. And at that time at conferences, we did not avoid alcohol. On the day before the party, we took it easy and let the steam go off. The next day I had a panel speech at 8:30 am with the presidents of several large cities and the president of the largest hotel chain in the CEE. It was a big expert panel. As you can probably guess, I did not look his best, I also spoke and communicated my thoughts not too brilliantly. The moderator of the meeting, on the other hand, confused the questions and instead of asking me about technologies and startups, he wanted me to answer the questions that were supposed to be responded to by the absent Polish minister of tourism. Completely hungover, I was asked about the road infrastructure in Poland and the legal conditions of the investment. You probably guess that I was not hailed as the best expert at the conference. We quickly ran down the panel so as not to meet anyone’s eyes. Luckily, at 8:30, it didn’t have much attendance in the room. The lesson was learned, today, we are much more conscious about our speeches.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Learn to separate work from private life and try not to bring it into your home — work-life balance is really important. If you are not 5 minutes after 6:00 p.m. at the office, the company will not collapse. Trust your colleagues, they are also able to take responsibility — I mean, as a company leader, you don’t have to get involved in every topic. The trick is to choose the right people and give them space and freedom to act. In addition, find a hobby or passion that will be a stepping stone from your work, that you will also care about a lot. For me it is, for example, running. Apart from the fact that I have a lot of fun, it allows me to put together many topics in my head, to get away from stressful situations at work, and to think about it all calmly with a different perspective.
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?
The IT industry is, by definition, easier. For us, remote work is something natural and poses almost no challenge. At Applover, before the onset of the pandemic, due to the quality of cooperation and the willingness to integrate the team, we focused on working on-site in our office. For over 4 years of operating, the remote workdays were not regulated, everyone could work remotely as much as they wanted, while the company believed that off-site work was an exception rather than everyday life. From the beginning of the company’s operation, we have been working remotely with most of our clients. There is also the aspect of remote work internal at the company, but as I mentioned it was not a logistical problem for us. I would say that when you have the right tools, managing remote teams is just easier. At Applover, we use Slack, Jira, Google Hangouts, as well as Discord for team integration and more intuitive communication. We are pretty satisfied with them and I could not imagine operating remotely without them.
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?
The most important thing in all this is the quality of communication. This is an absolute foundation. Remote work from on-site work differs mainly in the fact that people do not see themselves on a daily basis and are not able to control what a given person is doing — whether at the level of a company or a specific department. It is therefore fundamental to define the principles and framework of communication and to create mechanisms that will allow for their efficient transfer, eg Daily in every, even non-technical department, written update to the Project Manager at the end of the day, etc.
By answering the question, the main 5 challenges would be:
- Live, on-site vs remote communication — the right tools can help you with that, like Slack, Google Hangouts or Discord;
- Team integration — we have managed to organized online integrations through Discord and it worked pretty well for our team, you can read more about it on our blog;
- Project management and decision making — recognize leaders at your company, and let them act to their best knowledge and experience;
- Measure work efficiency — it is easier to see how people work, how they are doing if you know this. I can recommend Hubstaff as a tool we use for it;
- The level of trust in the team — in the case of remote work, it must be much higher, based on partner relations. People are much more engaged when they feel you trust them and let them make their own decisions.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
To address these challenges, you need to take them seriously, each as a separate project. Definitely plan over time what to do to cope with every challenge. I am sure that taking these challenges into account in the daily work of the company in new circumstances can be difficult, but engage your company’s leaders and talk it through with them. Their ideas may surprise you, but they know your team and your remote work can benefit a lot from their involvement.
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?
In my opinion, it does not differ much and the same rules apply as for providing feedback live. Just encourage your teammates to turn on the cameras during the video calls. Ensure them that everyone is working remotely so they don’t have to look their best — we are all just humans. And lead by example by always turning the camera yourself. It makes contact more natural, you can see people’s reactions — body language is really important, especially while working remotely when you can have at least some of it. Make sure that nothing disturbs you when you are giving feedback, put your mobile phone on silent or turn it off and focus entirely on the other person.
Moreover, to give feedback the best way you can, it must be substantive, supported by examples, and communicated in a sincere and open manner. Giving feedback should not be a monologue, you should ask what the person thinks about it and how they view it. Their perspective can be different and you can learn a lot about the situation or a challenge when you listen to your employees carefully.
As for the form — well, you know the right environment, how to transmit feedback remotely — webcam, make sure that no one is flying in the background and not interrupting our call
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
It should be similar to the above — respectfully, but specifically, based on examples. If you can, provide good examples or benchmarks. It is best when your narrative is open and includes phrases asking the other person for their opinion. If something is very personal and might be heavy, try to not make it by email — just call.
It worked for us at Applover, we were having every employee’s evaluation remotely. We do it every half a year and it was really important for us to maintain it and conduct it as well as possible. These tips worked for our team with almost 60 people on board so I believe it can work for almost every company.
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?
Obviously, this is a different environment, so it is crucial that these teams take care of the work culture and work quality in the new reality.
In my opinion, it’s essential for the team to understand that we have a different reality, so we have to take care of the form of our cooperation because you are aware that we will see less offline and this creates some threats that the work will go away — being aware of this point, we give more from each other. Everyone can be more engaged in their tasks and projects.
As leaders, we give more, that is: we strive for the attention of the other person, we try to maintain the quality of communication, we attach importance to it, we give clear feedback.
Extra emphasis on integration after work, within work, can do a lot for your company — to maintain its unique culture and atmosphere. Moreover, it builds a sense of unity. Provide your team with tools that can ease their everyday communication and encourage them to use them. Even lunch together online can allow your team to feel much better while working together on a challenging project.
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?
To create and maintain your work culture I highly encourage you to organize all kinds of online integrations which can increase the feeling that the team is still working together and that everyone has the right motivation. At Applover, we have organized online pub quizzes, remote hackathons, gaming tournaments. Moreover, we introduced Discord and organized this tool so there is every room, as it is at our office. Thanks to it, our team can always talk with each other as if they were sitting right next to each other — they can eat lunch together or discuss the obstacle they have in their project.
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 believe that if you are given something, try to share it with others. Do good and give back. If you are lucky enough to not struggle during the global pandemic, right now, try to help others. At Applover, we are always operating with this idea in mind. That was why we decided to join Tech to the Rescue initiative and support NGOs that help fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Thanks to it, we helped a great organization that allows you to easily donate to charity while shopping. It is called Altruisto, you can look for their browser plugin, install it and help others while online shopping.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
― Winston S. Churchill
In my opinion, you should learn from your mistakes and failures, and go on with your work. Only thanks to it you can develop and finally succeed. Our first business ailed, but we have learned a lot and now we can say that Applover is on its way to being a really successful company.
Thank you for these great insights!