Getting the right cultural fit — when we started Rebecca Page we operated on a good ‘gut-feel’ and this has, for the most part, worked well in a small team environment. Team members who have come from a design room notice and enjoy the absence of stereotypical ‘divas’ and office politics. We are mindful that as we scale, we will need to move away from gut-feel as the primary method for getting the right cultural fit.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rebecca Page.
Rebecca Page is the co-founder and CEO of Rebecca Page, a hugely popular global sewing brand with a community of over 500,000. She has spent over 30 years sewing and is the creator of the leading Sewing Pattern Subscription & The Sewing Summit, and is a published author. Rebecca has been featured in The Times, on BBC Radio 4 and in numerous industry publications. An entrepreneur by heart, Rebecca has run multiple businesses. She is a huge advocate for moving away from fast fashion to beautifully fitting hand-made clothes.
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”?
Thank you! I started sewing when I was around 8 years old. I remember so clearly my Mum trying to steer me towards simple, beginner level sews… and me setting my heart on complicated coats and ballgowns! I worked my way through her sewing encyclopedia, trying every technique on scraps of fabric and saving them all in a big folder. I had a huge desire to have my own business right from when I was little and quickly started making things to sell. Over the years I’ve always come back to sewing, and now being able to combine my love of business with my love of sewing is the dream role for me!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I actually started the business after being the standby contestant on the Great British Sewing Bee. I was on maternity leave with our second child and applied to go on the show. I didn’t get on, but if someone couldn’t make the live filming dates, I would have to step in. I got to do all the same prep and practice behind the scenes as the contestants. They didn’t need me for filming in the end, but I had such fun with the process, I decided I wanted to take some of my homemade sewing patterns and put them on Etsy for sale. 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?
Ahh, once I was making matching PJs for our two eldest kids who were quite different heights. I was so busy watching Netflix while I sewed that I didn’t notice I had sewed mismatching bottoms together… I ended up with two identical pairs of pajama bottoms, each with one long leg and one short leg.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
Everyone in our team is based remotely and has complete flexibility as to how and when they work. The ability to manage families and non-work responsibilities, along with the time saved not having to commute, allows our team to establish a routine that works for them. This reduces stress and burnout, which means our team can thrive in their work and home lives. One of our marketing team, Bronwyn, says ‘I’m an introvert so prefer to be in my own space, and find I am way more productive working remotely; I can just put my head down and go, but also walk away if I need to run errands and then balance out the time later out on’.
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?
Rebecca Page Ltd was registered in March 2018, so it’s been over two years now.
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?
- Managing time and productivity — the added complexity in managing remote teams needs to be balanced by sharing the responsibility between management and the team. In return for flexibility, the team understand that there needs to be the means of having technical oversight around time and productivity. Before we implemented a technical solution, it took time to manually prepare timesheets and accuracy and tracking of time was an issue.
- Managing communications — finding the right technology to enable quick and effective communication across many different time zones. Email can be appropriate between two people, but we found that when there were more than two people there was that inevitable lag due to people working in different time zones.
- Getting the right cultural fit — when we started Rebecca Page we operated on a good ‘gut-feel’ and this has, for the most part, worked well in a small team environment. Team members who have come from a design room notice and enjoy the absence of stereotypical ‘divas’ and office politics. We are mindful that as we scale, we will need to move away from gut-feel as the primary method for getting the right cultural fit.
- Establishing an organizational structure that aligns to scaling a remote team — as a start-up scales, it is inevitable that more and more of the team report into the CEO. It can be tricky dismantling a flat structure and implementing something that supports natural workflow.
- The fun ‘human’ stuff — the team is growing rapidly, which means it is important to quickly integrate new people and make them feel welcome. We are pretty much all creative people at heart, so we identified that our team fun needed to be centred round our creativity.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
- Managing time and productivity — we use Time Doctor, a web-based solution that provides time tracking, computer work session monitoring, reminders and screenshot recording for remote teams. It is very easy for our flexible team to capture the time they spend on different tasks and it’s also easy for us to monitor and report time accurately.
- Technology to manage communications — we use Slack, Zoom and WhatsApp for team communications. We’ve found that this combination quickly solves any miscommunications that may pop up in written form, and we don’t believe this is less effective than being in a face-to-face environment. As Bronwyn in our marketing team says ‘being able to work from anywhere is fun and opens up so many possibilities — I can work from a friend’s kitchen, from another country if I travel, or from the couch’.
- Employing for the right cultural fit — we have been lucky because we have found most of our team directly from our customer base and these positions are highly sought after. Everyone involved in the pattern making process enjoys sewing, and we think this authentic love of the patterns that we produce shines through. As a global company, we are overwhelmingly fortunate to serve a customer base made up of all different races, religions, ethnicity, and creeds. Diversity in all ways is integral to the makeup and culture of Rebecca Page, and we are welcoming and proud of the various backgrounds, beliefs, and incredible individuals that make up our ‘team’.
- Organizational structure that aligns to scaling a remote team — I liken our organizational structure to a beehive, but without a queen bee! We work cooperatively towards our larger goal, but operate on a day-to-day basis within smaller teams. Jo in our pattern team say that ‘just like a beehive there is no close of business, no 5 pm out the door and that’s it, job done until the next day…everything keeps turning with each time zone, the process never stops!’.
- The fun ‘human’ stuff — we have built comradery through creative sharing on our Monday afternoon team Zoom call. We also have a ‘random’ channel on Slack where we can post anything and everything we want to about what we are up to in our lives. There’s lots of pictures of everyone’s kids, dogs, dinners and road trips!
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?
Working in a genuine learning environment helps to promote a two-way process of constructive feedback that prevents a blame culture creeping into conversations. I have also found that it is important to set expectations up front about the regularity of and process for communication, along with agreeing what the team member needs from me (or someone else), action points and a realistic timeline.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
I don’t recommend using email for constructive feedback. I prefer to speak to the person directly. Usually there’s a reason why they did or said what they did. If we can find out what that is, it’s much easier to address what happened directly, letting them know what the impact was and how we’d like it done in future. With Zoom and WhatsApp, most of our team can jump on a call quickly.
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?
A team used to working closely together can implement a routine during the pandemic that helps to keep everyone in touch. Establish Zoom ‘catch-ups’ each morning and afternoon, that are just the same as coffee-time in the office. Team members can ask any questions, discuss issues or just listen in the background to what’s going on. Having a set time to login to the team catch-up avoids the potential obstacle of isolation. An added benefit is that it’s an efficient use of time, as the team don’t need to individually contact the team leader whenever they have a question. Whether in person or on screen, this kind of interaction creates a learning environment for everyone in the team. I’d also suggest retaining any team cultural norms, such as having a drink together after work on a Friday. It’s not quite the same on Zoom, but you can mix it up by making someone different in charge each week of a team activity or challenge.
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?
We have a team call at 5pm on a Monday and everyone from all around the world logs in — often with kids and pets in the background! I have a quick round-up of what we are focusing on in the coming week and then each team member shares a creative project they have been working on and answers a fun weekly question. This has helped the team get to know each other better, which has resulted in friendships developing. Because we all come from all over the world, and use language differently, we learn to look at things from different perspectives and this helps us to avoid misunderstanding or miscommunication. Bronwyn from our marketing team sums up the team culture — ‘one of my absolute favorite things about Rebecca Page and the global nature of the team is “meeting” people from countries and cultures I may not have had a chance to otherwise’.
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 would love, love, love more people to think about the sustainability of their clothing. Not just where it comes from and who sews it, but also having clothing really fit their body how they want it to. If you have quality clothes you love, that fit how you want them to, you are far more likely to wear them and look after them. This both reduces waste and has people feel better about themselves.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My co-founder, Janine, sent me a card very early on in the business with the quote “She thought she could so she did”. I saved it and still have it up on my wall today. It really says it all to me. Anything is possible. The key is believing you can.
Thank you for these great insights!