Robert Nickell of ‘Rocket Station’: “Always remember that a little compassion goes a long way”

Always remember that a little compassion goes a long way. Start with some small talk and, if possible, commend them for something they accomplished recently. When it’s time to bring up the matter in question, do it in a way that lets them know you plan to help them fix the problem and that you […]

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Always remember that a little compassion goes a long way. Start with some small talk and, if possible, commend them for something they accomplished recently. When it’s time to bring up the matter in question, do it in a way that lets them know you plan to help them fix the problem and that you expect them to keep moving forward from that point.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Nickell.

His company, Rocket Station, a leading provider of outsourced staffing and process management, continues to scale — big! Currently employing 800+ virtual assistants, the company is on target to reach 1,000 by the end of 2021. Still, because he has the process down to a science, he has plenty of time to spend pursuing the things he loves most — traveling the world and hanging out with his nephews as much as possible when he’s home.

Robert started his career as an entrepreneur in the real estate industry and quickly realized how hard it was to stay on top of a growing business. He couldn’t ignore the everyday tasks but they were time consuming. That meant working long hours… lots of them. Still, despite his best efforts, Rob’s business continued to struggle.

Eventually, Rob decided to give virtual assistants a try. It took a while, but once he found the best processes for hiring, training, and managing them, his business took off. He founded Rocket Station because he knew that his plan could work for every business owner who is struggling with finding the right people to join the company — at a price they can afford.

He was right.

Thanks to Nickell’s attention to detail, focus on developing scalable business processes, and detailed performance tracking, Rocket Station has earned prominent clients such as Kevin Harrington and Kevin O’Leary, as well as thousands of less notable but equally important smaller clients.

If you aren’t aware of the benefits that a virtual workforce affords you, please, read on! Using virtual assistants to handle daily tasks keeps you and your key players focused on growing your business.

Join us as Robert explains the ins and outs.

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 was fortunate and had some success in real estate right after graduating from college. Of course, I couldn’t wait to quit my job and start my own business. I quickly discovered that building a business takes a phenomenal amount of work! I was making great money but found myself working around 80 hours a week trying to stay ahead. I was so disorganized that I even missed commitments — both personal and professional.

I knew something needed to change and made the decision to try working with virtual assistants. I’d heard it was a great experience and extremely practical for a small business. I was ready to go for it!

Well, I’ll be the first to admit that things didn’t go anything like I imagined at first. The VAs I hired lived in the Philippines and there were language barriers to overcome. Additionally, they often failed to complete tasks and if they did, I was often having to rework them because they weren’t completed to my standards.

So, initially, I was taking on more work because I had to keep going back to correct mistakes. Still, I could envision virtual assistants handling the day-to-day tasks of my business and it kept me moving toward my goal.

I refused to give up and instead rethought my approach, determined to get it right.

It took some fine-tuning because when I started, I didn’t consider that my level of experience played a part in how I was documenting my process. Eventually, I went back and started from square one. I documented every single step I took while performing the task myself. It paid off and things finally got to the point where even an inexperienced VA could step into the job and perform the tasks flawlessly.

My business was growing and I wasn’t racking up the expense associated with having traditional employees. Remember, you’re not hiring W-2 workers so you don’t have to worry about taxes, worker’s comp insurance, or sick leave. That’s huge!

It hit me that other business owners needed this information and that was the spark that ignited Rocket Station.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Wow, there are so many it’s hard to say which is the most interesting. My parents taught me way back that true entrepreneurs produce money as a direct result of the value that they put into the world. I’ll share one of my stories about realizing they were right.

One of my virtual assistants was having trouble hitting the mark and worried that I was going to let her go when I broached the subject with her. I wasn’t aware of it at the time and proceeded to explain to her that I’d come up with some additional steps to use that would help her get on point.

Sometime later, I received an email from her telling me of her fear of being let go when she wasn’t getting the job accomplished to my satisfaction. She expressed her sincere gratitude for my dedication to ensuring that she had everything she needed to succeed in her position. That made me feel good.

Then, she went on to share that her earnings enabled her to provide a better life for her family. She still lived at home with her parents and they’d had a hard time making ends meet her entire life.

Of course, I knew that cultural differences made the pay rate for virtual assistants who lived in the Philippines a life changing amount. But, when that information was presented to me on a first hand basis instead of just checking the stats, it struck a chord deep within me. I knew without a doubt that I was a true entrepreneur.

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?

When I first started, I didn’t always take the time to completely think through an idea before running with it. For example, there was a short period of time when I thought it would be a great idea to call all of our female customer service reps “Sara” and our male reps “John.” At first, it seemed to work well, but it quickly fell apart. I’d mistakenly thought it would bring efficiency and clarity — instead, it created confusion.

One day, a rep answered the phone and cheerfully said, “Thanks for calling Rocket Station. This is Taylor.” Her happy expression suddenly changed to dismay, then, panic, as she continued, “Umm… I mean… Sara! How can I help you?”

Everyone within hearing range thought it was funny, but the customer wasn’t amused. They were confused by the greeting they received. And, of course, Taylor was embarrassed by sharing her name and then… changing it!

I learned a couple of things from that experience.

Regarding that particular incident, the leadership team and managers all realized it was better for team morale and company culture to let everyone be themselves. Many people didn’t like my “uni-name” idea at all but went along with it because it’s what the boss said to do. Overall, I learned to slow down and get feedback from several credible people who have insight before going all in with a new process.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

That’s a great question, especially now! The pandemic is throwing stuff at us from every angle — both at work and home. Stress is a major cause of employee burnout. Make sure your employees are handling the changes that came with working from home and aren’t overwhelmed.

Time management is another huge issue because it’s easy to just keep working — either because you lose track of time or because there’s so much to do! That works the other way too — especially if you’re a parent with kids home from school. It’s a parents’ responsibility to put them first and, then, figure out how to manage their workload. Combining work with homeschooling and the constant supervision that young children need can leave parents feeling as if they’re walking a tightrope.

All these things contribute to employee burnout.

Still, lots of business owners treat employee burnout as if it’s a talent management issue — or a personal one — rather than considering they may play a part. For instance, business may be booming, but do you ensure your employees have enough time off? Another example, overtime is great but it wears employees down pretty quickly if it’s a daily occurrence.

Little things that you do mean a lot too. So, check in on your employees when they’re working from home. Knowing that you care about their well-being is a great way to increase engagement.

Try to think of ways to show you appreciate the job they do. It doesn’t have to get costly. Actually, it’s pretty amazing to see the difference that a sincerely spoken “nice job” makes. And, if you’re into passing out perks like t-shirts and goody bags… all the better!

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?

Rocket Station went entirely remote in 2013. But, remember, I started working with virtual assistants soon after starting my first business. Once I realized their value, I figured out how to give them a place in my company.

Then, I made them my company and built an army of virtual assistants. So, to answer your question, it’s been a while.

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?

When you’re used to having everyone under one roof, managing a remote team can seem a bit overwhelming. Employers need to pull their management teams together and devise a course of action. Document any changes to your processes. When everyone is operating on the same page, the transition goes smoothly.

I’d say the five most challenging areas that remote managers face are:

1. Tracking productivity

It can be hard to let go of the reins when your employees are working from home. That’s true whether you’ve been doing the work yourself or had employees working on-site where you could drop in to check progress.

I don’t consider myself a micromanager in the least, but it was hard for me to resist the urge to check in more than necessary at first. Don’t get me wrong, though, I got the hang of it pretty quickly.

In fact, a friend good-naturedly cut me off once when I was about to recount my “to-do” list saying, “You don’t do anything.” I was taken aback, but in a good way. It was one of the nicest things anyone ever said to me because, overall, they were right!

Successful entrepreneurs choose to loosen up on the reins and let their team members push toward achieving the goal instead. When you do that, you’re ahead of the game because your employees will take the ball and run with it. Knowing that you have confidence in them increases their self-worth and encourages them to excel.

2. Communication

It’s really important to create a structured, formal process for communicating. If you don’t, things will get chaotic in a hurry.

If everyone has their own method of keeping in touch, for example, it’s going to get tricky trying to keep all pertinent information in one place. Or, maybe you need to find a link that someone sent you — only to realize you can’t remember whether it was a social media PM, company messenger, or somewhere on your text thread. Sure, you can track it down, but that’s going to take time you’d rather use elsewhere.

Now and then, it’s not that big a deal but eventually it’s going to have negative results. Having the ability to uniformly track and measure progress plays a major part in your company’s success.

3. Positive workplace culture

I rely heavily on my management teams to keep morale high at Rocket Station. They work hard to get to know their employees and think of ways to keep them engaged with events and perks that appeal to them.

There’s no way for me to speak to every virtual assistant we employ — there simply aren’t enough hours in the day! Still, I like to stay involved to some degree because even though I may not know them personally, I care about our employees. They are Rocket Station.

When your employees know you care about them on a personal level, it builds trust. They want to be working for a company that values them. We want our employees to know that we couldn’t do what we do without them and we are grateful for their dedication.

You shouldn’t have to think too hard to find ways to keep employees engaged, especially if your ultimate goal is for them to be happy and satisfied. Think of ways to let them know you care. Open communication shows employees that you value their opinions which makes them feel empowered.

When employees engage with the company, it’s because they feel like the job they do plays an important part in the company. It increases satisfaction and satisfied employees are willing to go the extra mile for you — every day.

4. Work-life balance

I learned pretty quickly that despite the fact that I was “living the dream,” finding the perfect work-life balance when you’re working from home can take some fine-tuning. It seemed like I was working all the time — because I was.

On the other hand, my virtual assistants have always had a pretty good handle on their work-life routine, mainly, I think, because they value their jobs so much. There have been some issues along the way — mostly to do with life changes — but, for the most part, nothing major.

I can see where employees getting sent home to work after having the structure that an office space provides could cause some problems. They might have a little trouble staying on task at first because the comforts of home surround them. And, so do the chores.

Switching to a remote workforce can help you scale your business. The most important step is to make sure your VAs have a documented process to follow. It makes all the difference.

Remember to be patient and give everyone time to slip into their new groove.

5. Onboarding

Make sure you have a thorough onboarding process or you could wind up hiring the wrong person.

You know that routine, right? You wind up hiring someone who isn’t a good fit and, eventually, one side or the other ends the relationship. That’s not something you want to repeat over and over. It gets costly having to keep training new people for the same job. Moreover, most small business owners will be performing the tasks themselves until the spot is filled.

We interview around 6,000 people a month at Rocket Station but we only hire about 120. We don’t set that number as our goal and stop when we accomplish it either. We know what skill set a stellar virtual assistant needs and we look for it specifically. That’s why we wind up only hiring around 2% or our applicants.

We’ve created a process that helps us determine how to hire the best employees. I’ll break it down for you into three steps.

  • Determine exactly what the job will be and the skills required to accomplish it.
  • Be specific when you advertise the position and include a detailed job description.
  • Take the time to create a list of interview questions beforehand that will enable you to determine if the candidate possesses the skills you’re looking for and if their personality compliments your workplace culture.

When you fine tune your onboarding process to meet specific needs, you’re more likely to find the perfect team member right out of the gate. Hiring the right person for the job creates a ton of benefits, such as increased productivity, lower turnover, and your workplace culture flourishes.

Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?

The good news is that it’s really not that difficult to manage your remote teams thanks to the amazing advances in technology. There are lots of software applications geared toward helping employers manage their remote workforce. Zoom proved that there is definitely a place for visual platforms in the mix as well.

It shouldn’t be hard to find what works best for you so you can address and resolve the challenges of going remote.

1. Tracking productivity

Remote managers say this is the biggest challenge they face because they don’t have the opportunity to stop by a team members desk and see where things stand. That makes sense. Scheduling phone calls or zoom meetings periodically may be all there is to it if you’re extremely confident in your team. However, most managers need to keep a closer eye on their teams’ progress and productivity.

There are a multitude of time tracking tools out there to assist you. Some favorites are Time Doctor, Toggl, and ClickTime. Productivity tools include Shift, ClickUp, Slack, and some time management software, like Toggl, for instance, tracks productivity as well.

2. Communication

Sending emails, taking phone calls, or hopping on a zoom to accommodate everyone’s preference for tracking progress and receiving assignments would soon have you spinning in circles. I’d suggest that you and your team brainstorm and come up with a set communication policy before you get bogged down trying to keep up. Then, everyone needs to agree to abide by it.

Applications, such as Google docs, allow you to edit documents together from separate locations. And, many employers utilize management software to list tasks, document time, and track information that is important to all team members is the option most business owners choose.

3. Positive workplace culture

Keeping a positive spin on your workplace culture can be a challenge, of course, because everyone’s separated. In addition to giveaways and other perks, encourage employees to call each other to check-in with coworkers — on the clock! It’s a great way to spend a few “water cooler” minutes with their workmates and brighten each other’s day.

Also, no matter where your employees perform their jobs, it’s important for them to feel that they can trust you and vice versa. It strengthens your relationship. So does knowing that you’re willing to listen to their suggestions and ideas. It empowers your employees and that increases their satisfaction.

Satisfied employees are happier with their jobs and keep them for the long-term.

4. Work-life balance

If an employee’s work-life ratio is having a negative impact on performance, first, determine what’s going on.

It could be because they don’t have a clear distinction between work and home — it can take some time to get everything balanced. This is especially true if your employee has always worked in a structured environment.

However, it’s important to make sure that your employee isn’t growing depressed or lonely. Some people aren’t cut out for working from home and it gets them down. Additionally, it could be that the stress from all the life changes that have occurred this past year due to the pandemic has affected them. Either way, know the signs of depression and act if you feel your employee is suffering.

5. Onboarding

Hiring a new team member can cause problems if you haven’t considered what a remote onboarding process should look like.

Make sure that your expectations are clearly outlined when advertising the position. Once you’ve hired someone, implement a buddy system so your new team member has a go-to when they have a question or problem. Also, it’s important for your employee to have access to the step-by-step processes they need to follow from start to finish.

Following those tips should increase your odds of finding the employee who best fits in with your company.

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?

I get that question a lot. It can be tough to handle constructive feedback on the phone because there’s no body language to cue us. Our voices convey feeling, but it’s not the same as meeting face-to-face. We must be conscious of that so as not to create unnecessary conflict. We never want the word “constructive” to seem “destructive.”

Always remember that a little compassion goes a long way. Start with some small talk and, if possible, commend them for something they accomplished recently. When it’s time to bring up the matter in question, do it in a way that lets them know you plan to help them fix the problem and that you expect them to keep moving forward from that point.

Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Although, sometimes it’s necessary, most people don’t like giving constructive criticism face-to-face or over the phone. It gets even harder to share constructive feedback in writing because it’s more difficult to convey our thoughts without sounding upset. I mean, we’ve all sent at least one text message that got misconstrued, right?

With no social cues to pick up on, things can go downhill fast.

That said, you should start your message with positive comments about how they’re doing. You won’t be building them up just to knock them down in the next paragraph either. By focusing on accomplishments first, it puts the employee in a positive mindset. They will be more receptive to your thoughts as to improvements or changes they need to make.

When you address the issue, provide specific steps to resolve it. Don’t make a point of stressing everything that’s gone wrong, other than finding a way to pair it with the correct approach to take instead. If there’s a lot going on, breaking the solution up into achievable milestones is a good idea. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when it seems like everything is hitting you at once.

Overall, we should still focus on being compassionate, so we’ll be more aware of how we’re expressing ourselves.

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?

My main suggestion for teams who have been split up to work from home is to stay in touch! If you’re used to seeing a certain group of people every day, it just makes sense that you’re going to miss each other. Don’t suffer in silence. Reach out and connect for a minute! It’s going to brighten your coworker’s day and yours too.

If you come across an obstacle while your remote workers are getting started, first, I’d say to avoid losing your patience. There’s going to be an adjustment period because you’re doing things differently — at work and at home. For instance, I mentioned already that some team members can work through the normal business day while others may have children out of school and need to work around that.

Other than that, make sure to document any changes to your processes so that everyone is following the same set of directives and you should be okay. More specifically, you can hold Zoom meetings instead of just a conference call. Maybe you can use a chat system during the day so everyone has immediate access to one another if it doesn’t circumvent your normal communication process.

There’s a wealth of technology available. The object is to find what works best for your company.

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?

Open communication is the key element in creating and maintaining a healthy workplace culture. Employees are more likely to stay engaged when they feel they are an integral part of the company. Help them see how what they do fits in with the bigger picture.

It’s important to build a foundation of trust from the beginning of the relationship. When employees know they can speak honestly with you, management, and their co-workers about concerns or ideas for improvement, it builds their level of confidence and they are more likely to remain satisfied with their job.

Encourage employees to communicate with each other too.

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. 🙂

The short answer is whenever you see a need, help. Humanity is what it’s all about when everything boils down.

If you can reach out through your business and really make a commitment to make a difference, all the better! For instance, we hire all our virtual assistants in the Philippines. That’s intentional. And, not because we can pay them less, even though that’s a huge bonus for us.

We hire our virtual assistants from the Philippines because we’re making their lives better. A lot better. The rate of pay they receive puts them at the higher end of the overall pay scale in their country. It’s a good feeling to know that you’re playing a part in changing someone’s life for the better.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“We achieve more when we chase the dream instead of the competition.”

I took that Simon Sinek quote to heart because it’s so true. If we get caught up in “keeping up with the Joneses” within our industry, we’re in danger of making it an entirely different game. A little healthy competition is one thing, but if staying ahead of everyone else is what drives you — it’s time to take a step back.

I never want to find myself in that place. It sounds like it’s pretty dark there. This quote is a good reminder of that.

Thank you for these great insights!

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