As a manager, it’s important to hold regular round table meetings and/or personal one-on-ones with your team members. Think about all the time in the office that you stop by someone’s desk to talk that’s now lost due to remote working. Scheduling intentional time to strengthen personal relationships pays huge dividends in keeping your team close together. When leading these round tables or one-on-ones, keep your camera on and don’t worry if the employees don’t, but you want to be able to let them see your face as you provide updates or guidance.
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 interviewing Rob Herman.
As General Manager of the Workstation & Client AI business unit, Rob Herman is responsible for the development, marketing, and global business results of Lenovo’s ThinkStation and ThinkPad P Series branded workstations. Rob and team are creating world-class solutions for some of the world’s most innovative users in engineering, financial, medical, media and entertainment, and energy exploration. Prior to his current role, Rob served as the Executive Director of Product Management, Vertical Marketing and Product Operations for Lenovo Workstations. Before joining the Workstation team, Rob was the Director of Business Planning and Director of Desktop Marketing in the Americas business unit.
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?
I am a 30-year veteran of the PC industry and have been a leader in the Lenovo workstation business for the last 11 years and General Manager of the group the last four. Throughout my career, I’ve worked in both the commercial and consumer sides of the PC industry. In fact, I spent a majority of my time doing product management and marketing for the worldwide business unit at Lenovo. I love being a part of the Workstation business unit because the mission is about delivering technology solutions to very specific end users working on specific “mission critical” applications for their companies.
Prior to Lenovo, I did a stint at NCR where I learned the financial side of the business as well as product management. From there, I went to Compaq where I learned how to define and bring a product to market. After that, I joined the team at Lenovo. This is where I learned how to lead and nurture a brand and where I also fell in love with workstations. I feel lucky to have held all of these different positions throughout my career because they have helped give me a well-rounded outlook on the PC industry and the various tasks my team is in charge of.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My career has taken me all over the world and I’ve seen many interesting things. From state of the art modernized car factory floors to cutting edge design labs to modern railroad logistics control centers. But the most surprising and fascinating thing I’ve seen that has left an indelible impression upon me is the application of compute power on the design of fashion garments. High-powered workstations are actually used with sophisticated simulation software to simulate the response of a particular textile material or fabric to things like motion and humidity, as well as response to water and sweat. It was amazing to see how mathematical models were directly connected to the world of fashion.
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?
My father had a great influence on my journey to where I am today. His story is one of those rags to riches tales where he basically grew up with very little and became one of the early pioneers in the software industry, even before Bill Gates. My father believed anyone could do anything and nothing is impossible. That belief is what carried him to such great success. But my father didn’t keep that gift to himself. He passed that on, not only to me, but to anyone he thought had potential to do more. He encouraged and pushed people to accomplish things beyond what they thought they were capable of.
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?
Obviously face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced by anything else, really. The team building and personal interaction that comes from face-to-face interactions is invaluable. Fortunately, our workstation team at Lenovo is well-established and we have adapted well to the new world of virtual interaction. However, our product is personal computers and it is a physical product. This requires our engineers and product managers to be able to touch and feel and hold the products — especially our notebook products. So, we’ve had to adapt and create new logistics in order to continue the interactions with our products as we design and develop them.
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?
In terms of team interaction, everyone being remote does become more of a challenge when facing a new business problem or a high degree of ambiguity. In face-to-face interaction, these problems seem to be solved at a faster pace.
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.)
- Be sympathetic — The pandemic has changed my life and the life of every single person on my team. I used to travel often. Some of my team members are balancing work and toddlers, others are now homeschool teachers, etc. Through this process, we’ve all learned to be more sympathetic and less of a machine. We now purposely take time to ask personal questions before diving into work and it’s helped us feel like we’re still a close-knit team even though we can’t physically be in the same room.
- As a manager, it’s important to hold regular round table meetings and/or personal one-on-ones with your team members. Think about all the time in the office that you stop by someone’s desk to talk that’s now lost due to remote working. Scheduling intentional time to strengthen personal relationships pays huge dividends in keeping your team close together. When leading these round tables or one-on-ones, keep your camera on and don’t worry if the employees don’t, but you want to be able to let them see your face as you provide updates or guidance.
- Use visual cues to expedite fact-finding and problem-solving. Whether it be virtual whiteboarding, Excel data, graphs, or actual pictures or images of products, use all the tools available to create a visual workflow.
- Create opportunities for your employees to share how they are adapting to working remotely. It’s amazing what some employees will share with you in terms of their workspace environment or how they are dealing with family issues during the day. It keeps that personal touch woven into a work community.
- Be spontaneous when the opportunity arises. Reach out to colleagues that you may not have spoken to in a while. Just a simple ping over chat might be enough to get a conversation going.
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?
Prior to the pandemic, we had already moved to Microsoft Teams as a company. We migrated from Skype, so we were already accustomed to a platform that combined chat, voice, video, and screen sharing capabilities. Teams and VoIP give us flexibility and allow communication on multiple platforms — PC, cell phone, tablet. The only limitation is the diversity of broadband and the overall capacity of broadband when so many are using it during the day.
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?
Hands down, video conferencing. Tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams allow us to continue to foster existing relationships. Beyond day-to-day meetings, we’ve held large team retreats using video conferencing. These applications allow for seamless sharing of content, both still and video content, and have fostered very effective meeting results.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
The tools we use today like Teams and Zoom work very well for us. The ability to do audio, video, and content sharing has allowed us to adapt fairly well to remote working. Working in the area of leading edge technology, I envision the next step being the incorporation of AR and VR to take collaboration to the next level. These technologies can be particularly beneficial in the areas of business that require visual content sharing of physical products or a high level of complex data. These technologies can enable a near-life like experience like no other technology can today.
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?
Yes, many of our customers are in the hardware design business — whether it be automotive, aviation, architecture, or even the film production business. These customers can benefit greatly from the advantages of VR collaboration. The ability to see 3D images of a design, to manipulate it, or change its position in a remote virtual environment, can greatly enhance and magnify collaboration, but also accelerate time to market for these new designs.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
As good as virtual technology is, nothing can replace the real thing. So, we do need to take care to strike a healthy balance between virtual collaboration and real, physical collaboration.
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?
I used to spend most of the work week traveling to meet existing and potential customers. It’s now officially been a year since I’ve been on a work trip and I’ve learned that it is still very possible to effectively build customer relationships remotely. Now, instead of meeting in person, we meet using video conferencing technology and I’ve even gotten to know my customers on a more personal level as it’s not uncommon for a child to pop into the meeting, a dog to run across the room or a FedEx delivery person to be at the door.
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?
When giving constructive feedback, whether face-to-face or virtually, it’s always valuable to provide context in terms of the situation, urgency, and the stakeholders involved. This context keeps the focus of the feedback on the role the person is in and how he or she can provide value to the organization.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Being empathetic is foundational to creating camaraderie and cohesion. Honesty, transparency, and authenticity as a leader help a great deal as well.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.