I believe it’s important to have a clear strategy mapped out and to be able to articulate to my remote teams and other team members how and when they are expected to contribute and allocate actions accordingly. It’s human nature to be occupied with the day to day business of one’s own location, so the responsibility is on me to ensure that my words and actions drive home the importance of the overall core plan. This is whether they are in India or Kyiv or elsewhere. I use an online project tool called Asana to allocate and track our actions and hold at least one check-in weekly to see how people are, to understand what their weekly priorities are, and offer my support where needed.
Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Sandra Hannon. Sandra is a Human resources professional with a special interest in employee engagement and talent development. She has proven experience in the devising and implementation of HR Strategy.
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 born in Youghal, Ireland. I moved to the Netherlands in the nineties, but five years ago we nipped across the border to Antwerp, Belgium for no other reason than our love for the city. It’s compact, crammed with gorgeous golden topped Renaissance-style buildings, delicious food, and delightful people. We feel very lucky to live here. Our home is only 30 minutes from Brussels airport which has been really useful given the amount of international travel my work demands. In the past decade I’ve been directly involved with a variety of industries, such as engineering, supply chain, and now healthcare technology.”
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
“Relocating to the beautiful city of Kyiv, Ukraine in January 2020 for my current role as Global Head of HR has proven to be one of the most interesting chapters of my career. My monthly rotations were disrupted due to Covid-19 in March, so I chose to stay with my team and ride out the storm from there. Now the restrictions are lifting, making it possible to contemplate my aerial commutes again.
Kyiv during Covid-19 was a busy and interesting period for our company. Bucking the trend, we continued our recruitment drive and hired new talent, with the objective of completing major development projects such as the Global Telehealth Exchange, as well as delivering a brand-new network to the market, Team.Care Network, in an expedited fashion.”
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
“Different experiences trigger stress for different people. My advice is to understand what triggers your stress in the first place, so that you can consider how best to counteract and eliminate the tension before it builds. I am a little introverted, so I need time alone to recharge my batteries. If I feel stress, it’s because I have allowed myself too little time to decompress. So to counteract this, I book down-time, and treat it like all my other appointments in that I don’t allow myself to cancel or double-book. Also, every two years, I take a holiday on my own to completely indulge myself and work on my ‘bucket list’. For example, last year I went to Uruguay to horse-ride with gauchos, and a few years before that I did a magical train trip all around Japan.”
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?
“I have worked and managed remotely since 2008. My first international team was relatively small and spread across America, Singapore, Canada, UK, and the Netherlands. Later on, as the scale increased, it became less about managing directly and more about getting stuff done for my part of the business by working with the respective CEOs for Global Mobility, Reward and so forth. I rather enjoy the excitement of working across time zones. I have always been an early bird, and, fortunately, I have inherited my mother’s legendary energy levels, so picking up with the East early and wrapping up with the USA late in the evening has always suited me very well.”
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?
“Firstly, I believe it’s important to have a clear strategy mapped out and to be able to articulate to my remote teams and other team members how and when they are expected to contribute and allocate actions accordingly. It’s human nature to be occupied with the day to day business of one’s own location, so the responsibility is on me to ensure that my words and actions drive home the importance of the overall core plan. This is whether they are in India or Kyiv or elsewhere. I use an online project tool called Asana to allocate and track our actions and hold at least one check-in weekly to see how people are, to understand what their weekly priorities are, and offer my support where needed.
Secondly, I want to know my numbers, so that I have clear optics on what is really happening on the shop-floor with individuals, teams, or, indeed, an entire country. I make sure I have a dashboard of meaningful metrics that help me to recognize when something is amiss. I’m not just talking about financials, but relevant operational HRM numbers that inform me and my team as to trends in attrition, illness, regrettable losses, lead times in hiring and so forth — all of which guides our subsequent actions.
Furthermore, I make a real effort to understand the mood on the ground. I also keep a keen eye on key developments pertaining to new laws that we may need to respond to from a HRM standpoint — for example, tax laws in the UK, or managing contractors in the USA. I also stay abreast of any important personal employee updates that I should acknowledge or signal to the CEO.
With regards to culture, I’ve found it imperative to appreciate the unique nuances of the cultures of the different countries that I am working with. I am a huge fan of Geert Hofstede’s work in this regard to the extent that I have his app on my phone! I’ve made a habit of using the app when interacting with my global colleagues. Communication is less direct here, so there is a greater need for me to ‘read between the lines’ and dig a little deeper to understand how people really feel about matters. But also, my colleagues are very modest in relation to what I consider outstanding achievements, so I try to keep my ear to the ground. I want to know about and recognize their accomplishments.
I have worked from home for many years and know how blurred the boundaries can become between work and home. I was hopeless at taking proper breaks or finishing on time. My previous manager who was immensely hardworking was a firm advocate for employees taking ‘me time’. She was the one who recommended that I take the dog out for a walk at lunchtime, and I learned quickly how productive I could be after a proper break. So I now keep a firm eye across the organization and look out for people working much longer hours than they should. More often than not, we find out too late that someone has unhealthy working habits, so I really try to look for the clues early on to combat the issue. I also ask about work habits during my team one-to-ones; I make sure to ask how people are feeling and offer my advice if I feel that some people are overworking.”
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 have been a disciple of Marcus Buckingham for many years and found his guidance in relation to feedback very helpful. I understand now that that very word ‘feedback’ induces such high levels of adrenaline that the recipient is forced into ‘fight or flight’ mode. This mutes the other parts of the brain, so that the person can only absorb certain strands of information. In other words, focusing on people’s shortcomings or gaps does not enable learning; it can often impair it.
This is why Buckingham uses the term course-correct instead. So, when I feel the need to give feedback, I really make an effort to instead pay attention to my peers and colleagues and coach them on how to course-correct to perform better. This means that I first have to make a concerted effort to see the world as they see it, and from the position they see it, and then (and only then) advise them on how to adjust from where they are to improve.
I insist on having all cameras switched on for all team interactions. I like to see faces, smiles, see who is joining in or not and react accordingly or pick up in private with a certain person if I feel that they need some extra attention.”
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
“In my opinion, emails are a mistake: the most effective conversations in this regard are two-way and in-person. But if that is not possible, then I connect with the person to focus on specific behavior and desired results. So rather than writing ‘Your presentation needs to be more high-level’ I might say, ‘I found it difficult to understand your objectives or the context’ and give them specific suggestions for them to consider in a next presentation. And when I see improvements, I am equally specific about what I observed. It goes without saying that, for such important emails, I read the email from the perspective of the reader to ensure that it is both kind and constructive.”
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?
“One size does not fit all. We are mindful that parents can be shy about coming forward to share their specific needs, so we create a trusting environment where people can organize themselves around their family rhythm and work for the best possible outcome for both. At Solve.Care we have encouraged our staff to adjust working times where needed to better sync with their family dynamics. One of our managers has young children, so he has staggered his working day to start earlier. He then takes a 2–3 hour break midday to play with his children, and then he works later in the afternoon/evening than he normally would have done. It’s a win-win. He gets valuable time with his children, and we get additional service outside of our ‘normal’ working hours. Our global workforce has really benefited from this kind of latitude.”
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 remind our people not to sweat the small stuff. Kids are going to make noise during your zoom calls, so let’s just roll with it and laugh. We’ve had an assortment of pets and children make a cameo appearance on our team meetings during the quarantine which has reminded us that we were all in the same ‘quarantine boat’. We’re doing our best to make it work. We’ve tried to be especially mindful of new joiners. As a growing company, Solve.Care hasn’t had any sort of let up on hiring. We have had 15 new people join us since the ‘quarantine’ began. HR operations did a great job of supporting our managers with the coordination of all the L&D activities associated with new joiners. Our buddy-system did the rest to help our new people successfully navigate the organization.”
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. 🙂
“Put a little cash aside each year and donate to a small local charity. One of our family’s favorites is a Dutch charity called Ambulance Wens Ambulance Wish that fulfils the dying wishes of terminal and immobile patients. The simplicity of these wishes is simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting. This week for instance they featured the last wish of a gentleman who wanted to see his cows one last time and was photographed in his barn, or a lady who wanted to feel the sand on her toes at the beach before she passed. I read one of these messages each day before I go to work, and I’m reminded of the important things in life.”
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Never walk past an empty belly. As a young child, I saw that my parents did what they could to help the needy. They never gave cash, but they always gave food and preferably a hot dinner to anybody that needed it. I was with my Dad one day when he brought a poor man into the chip shop to buy him a meal. I recall the man asking my Dad if he could ‘possibly have a bit of fish with the chips, Sir’, and my Dad responding with tears in his eyes, ‘of course you can, son’. That was forty odd years ago, and I still get a lump in my throat thinking about it. My wish is that we will be able to similarly influence our son to give generously and to care about others.”