Isolation — It’s not unusual for remote employees to feel isolated. It can be more difficult to collaborate or connect with a team that you don’t share a physical space with — especially if some members are physically working together. This workplace isolation comes on top of the social isolation and disruption many people are experiencing now because of the pandemic. We need to engage all of our employees and give them the tools they need to connect, so they can adapt and feel safe in a time of uncertainty.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Kershaw.
Rick is the Chief People Officer at Peakon and leads the global people team. Rick’s passion is creating employee experiences that support talented people as they do their best work everyday — which ultimately enables continued business growth.
Rick has over 20 years of HR and talent management experience, spanning different sectors and including businesses such as Pepsi, Mitsubishi, and most recently Expedia Group, where he led the People team supporting the EMEA region.
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 grew up in a very small, industrial town close to a region called the Lake District in the UK, before heading to University in Liverpool — probably most famous for the Beatles, football and Kim Catrall. I then spent my formative years building up my HR experience across various sectors, including engineering, consumer goods and technology in scaled and scaling organisations (200–200,000). I have been very blessed along the way to work with inspirational HR leaders who have challenged me, taken risks on me, and helped shape me into the leader I am today. Outside of my job, I am married — my partner and I are just celebrating our 17th wedding anniversary — and we have two amazing children, aged 14 and 7.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
In the People function you get to see and experience many situations. I can now honestly say that nothing ever surprises me. During my time at Pepsi, I was asked to support the expansion of the talent acquisition operating model across the Europe business, which grew from 30k to 60k people overnight following two major acquisitions in Russia. It was an incredible journey. I was privileged to spend time in Russia, to experience the culture, to work with new colleagues, and really understand how to drive change at scale.
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 my first ever HR role, I was asked to sit in on a number of intern interviews that were happening back-to-back all day. I didn’t have an active role and was there to observe only. After about the fifth interview, I could feel my attention slipping away from the candidate, and was distracted to the point I was reading instructions on a fire extinguisher. My colleague who was interviewing spotted me, so asked what my thoughts were on the question from the candidate. Highly embarrassed, I pulled together a quick response. However, my lack of attention showed. What I learned very quickly is that anyone who invests time in wanting to be part of your business — successful or not — deserves your full engagement and attention, to ensure they have a positive candidate experience.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
You have to give employees a safe channel through which to give feedback, and listen to what they tell you. Employees need to feel like they can let you know what’s on their minds, and that you’re not only paying attention, but that you value their feedback and will act upon it. When people see that you value their feedback, it builds trust and engagement, and motivates them to help drive your business forward. That’s what we provide companies with at Peakon. I love seeing business leaders take hold of their employees’ words and make their work environment and experience better as a result.”
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?
“Before coming to Peakon, I worked for a range of different companies, including Pepsi and Expedia. I’ve managed dispersed and remote teams for a significant proportion of my career. In one of my more recent roles, I had a team spread across 10 countries and at least three different time zones.
Remote working has been a growing trend for a number of years, but 2020’s pandemic has accelerated this shift — suddenly making it a necessity for many. In my experience it is critical that you have high levels of trust, set clear objectives, and communicate continuously to be effective.
We’re all still adapting, but at the same time, learning so much about how people work, and what works best for them. I’ve learned a lot about our employees at Peakon as we came together to work through this pandemic, and meanwhile observed global workplace trends transforming through our global data set.”
Managing a team remotely can be very different to 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?
1. Fear of cultural erosion
◦ Many leaders fear that going remote will lead to some sort of cultural erosion. But in reality, it just involves taking a fresh approach to cultural enrichment. Culture extends beyond the four walls of the physical office. Events can still be hosted virtually. You can still have online get togethers and coffees with teammates. And you can still praise excellent work and celebrate each other’s successes. During the first lockdown, Peakon employees even participated in a 24-hour ‘Zoomathon’ to raise money for the Global Foodbanking Network. Cultural erosion only occurs when we don’t adapt for our new environment. You need to be very clear on the traditions that are important to your business and get creative around how you maintain them in the fluid dynamic.
• 2. Isolation
◦ It’s not unusual for remote employees to feel isolated. It can be more difficult to collaborate or connect with a team that you don’t share a physical space with — especially if some members are physically working together. This workplace isolation comes on top of the social isolation and disruption many people are experiencing now because of the pandemic. We need to engage all of our employees and give them the tools they need to connect, so they can adapt and feel safe in a time of uncertainty.
• 3. Communication
◦ When everyone is working remotely, or split between home and the office, communication can become more challenging, and some employees risk feeling less engaged or even excluded. Companies need to build out a process for fine tuning the communication within teams and across departments, so that people feel that they are in the know, engaged, and a part of the team. But with more communication comes a greater risk of miscommunication, so clarity of messaging is absolutely essential too.
• 4. Learning the skills to successfully manage remote teams
◦ The prevalence of remote work means that many managers have suddenly needed an entirely new set of skills. Employers need to work to support managers with this shift to ensure they are properly equipped to manage a fully or partially remote team. Communication processes and emotional intelligence skills need constant attention and empathy must be made a central pillar of how we lead.
• 5. Every employee is different
◦ No two employees are the same, or will respond to an event in the exact same way. We need to keep this in mind as we manage and avoid falling into the trap of one-size-fits-all thinking. Some employees will find remote work to their liking, for example. While others will find it difficult to be apart from their peers every day. Some will be more motivated, and others less so. As managers and leaders, we have to work with our individual employees to help them remain engaged and motivated as the workplace changes around them.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
• Think of someone who stumbles across a new business idea, but fails to check if there’s a gap or demand for it in the market. They may feel personally excited about it, but it isn’t going to resonate far and wide. Well, the same goes for team culture and taking care of your employees. The only way to stay on top of what they really want, need and expect is to regularly ask them, “How are you feeling about this? What can we do better? What can we do differently?” Rather than coming up with solutions in a vacuum, the key is to collect regular, anonymous feedback from employees and use that to help inform the actions you take to help bring out the best in your teams.
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?
• When it comes to giving constructive feedback, it’s essential that the conversation is two-sided. Ask questions and give employees space to talk before you jump in and give more feedback. If you are speaking on a video call, make sure that you take the time to ask them how they are feeling and use your judgement to decide if now is the best time for this conversation. After the conversation, allow some time for reflection, but do follow up with them to make sure the feedback has landed in the right way. Keeping that channel of communication open is important, especially when people are dispersed, as there’s a greater risk that the feedback could be perceived to be bigger than it is in reality.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
• It’s partly to do with knowing your employees. Some do better with constructive feedback and want it, while others have a harder time with it. You have to work with their unique personalities, and judge your use of words wisely. The written word can be easily misinterpreted. So when writing a sensitive email, take great care not to sound too abrupt. Be sure to praise achievements and point out positives, as well as areas for improvement. Ensure that you use evidence-based examples, as that will help the individual reflect on the feedback in more detail. And before hitting send, consider if a video call would be the better option instead.
Can you share any suggestions for teams who are used to working together on location but have been 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?
• Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been recommending that leaders over-index on communication and empathy. Make sure that you check in with everyone on your team on a regular basis and ask them how they are feeling. It’s also important to have the right platforms and processes in place for success. That may include an instant messaging tool like Slack, or a task manager to help everyone stay connected to the project in hand. And, of course, a platform through which employees can safely leave regular feedback.
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?
• Get creative and have fun with the process. Maybe you can have an online festive party, regular fundraising events, or team quizzes. This is a strange time, so we all need to get a bit creative and make the effort to connect. But online events aren’t for everyone, and the appeal can start to wane after a while. So be diligent to create a broad range of activities to attract everyone’s interest.
• Part of our job now is to recognize the stress and worry people are experiencing and to provide them with reassurance, as well as the means to focus, engage, and grow. Now more than ever we need to recognize the needs of the individuals we work with, and to ensure that work continues to really work for everyone — no matter the uncertainty and turbulence around us.
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 to continue momentum for enabling hybrid and remote working models that help drive flexibility, inclusion, wellbeing and ultimately work that works for people. The world has pivoted and we can’t go backwards. There are some amazing examples of remote businesses, but most organizations are now just catching up and figuring how to be effective. Of course, businesses still need to be efficient and productive, but engaged talent is critical for driving that productivity and future business success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There are some amazing and inspirational quotes that I hold dear. However, it might sound strange, but one thing I always share with my teams came from the Disney-Pixar movie Finding Nemo. And that is to “just keep swimming”. For me it highlights the importance of resilience and perseverance, and embracing change. Sometimes in HR, you just need to have courage and belief in the direction that you have set out in. It is not always an easy journey, especially as we have people at the center of what we do. Also, it’s quite a light hearted quote, which is reflective of my style and personality!
Thank you for these great insights!