…Establishing trust starts with open communication, getting to know your team members and their daily routines such as whether they are a morning person or not. Give them tasks strategically when you know they will be at their best and trust them to be responsible and complete the tasks without being micromanaged.
As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a remote team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharney Ryan.
Sharney Ryan is the Founder and Managing Director of Mash Media, a boutique full-service digital marketing agency operating in Australia and in the US. She remotely manages a highly experienced and international team, servicing small-medium to large businesses.
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”?
Marketing has always been a passion for me. I studied it at Uni and have worked in multiple different facets of marketing: radio, glossy magazines, directories and digital for about the last 15 years. Before starting my own business, I worked for several larger marketing agencies and while I always loved my work, I knew that something was missing for me and that one day I would love to have a business of my own.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting story is how and why I finally started my own business Mash Media. Several things happened in my life all at around the same time: I lost my job, fell pregnant and my father passed away. Starting my own agency was something I’d always wanted to do, it’s also something my Dad was always saying I should do. My hesitation was mainly due to my fear of failure and the loss of having a security net. In losing my job while I was pregnant, I felt that fate was stepping in and pushing me in the right direction to get started. I guess it was a very interesting start to my new career as a business owner.
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?
Well, I made a lot of mistakes and I think most startup businesses make mistakes. I wouldn’t really call them funny, sometimes they can be quite costly or embarrassing. I would say the funniest mistake I made as a business owner was thinking I could wear all hats. Specifically, the biggest mistake was in thinking I could do my own recruiting and successfully hire the right people. It wasn’t until I realized that hiring was actually one of my weaknesses and engaged a professional recruitment agent, that I managed to build my superstar team. I have learned from my mistakes that you don’t have to be the best at everything and don’t need to run every facet of your business, you just have to surround yourself with the best people.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?
One of the key things is to provide flexibility. I think most burnouts come from being stuck in the same routine and working long hours which is easy to do when working remotely. Then there is the need to keep personal appointments and run errands but those things have to be done at night or on weekends and it can feel like there is little or no down time. I would advise that it is important to remember your employees are people and that they have lives outside of their work. I believe you should allow some flexibility and trust them to perform their duties without micro-managing them. The biggest thing in avoiding burnout is achieving a great work/life balance which I always endeavor to encourage for my team.
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 been managing remote teams for about 5 years.
I have been managing remote teams for about 5 years. All members of my team have always operated remotely from different cities and in different states and even countries. Many of my employees work from home, a few of them are in coworking spaces 1–3 days a week for the networking and social interaction an office environment provides. Since COVID-19 came into being, everyone has had to work from home so there has been a bit of adjustment for some team members. After managing remote teams for 5 years, there’s still the impact that COVID has had on everybody to deal with.
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?
After managing a remote team for 5 years, I have learned that there are many challenges but the top 5 for me have been:
– Promoting well-being: remote doesn’t have to equal ‘working alone’. I understand that not everyone has the desire or the option to have an office set up at home but for those who do communication with me and with each other is essential.
– Establishing trust: this means not tracking every online action and micromanaging which can be difficult when your team is remote. Many managers may find it hard to put their trust in the team working as well remotely as they do in an office setting. I have found it creates a sense of pride in my team that I trust them to perform without constant supervision.
– Encouraging social interactions: It is hard to replace that social interaction you get from working closely with colleagues in an office. I organize video chats and challenges for the team to find ways to feel like there is a more social aspect to their situation.
– Choosing the right tools: it is essential to have a well-structured project management system to enable remote teams to work collaboratively. A good communications system for instant messaging, file sharing and chatting is also a necessary tool.
– Set clear goals: we all need to know where the business is going and need to be aware of our part in getting there.
Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges?
Promoting wellness from a distance can be a real challenge. When working alone, it is easy to get caught up in what you’re doing and forget to get up, stretch and move around. We often put out challenges on Slack to go outside, take a selfie and share with the team. We also encourage team members to share ‘working from home’ and wellness tips and ideas.
Establishing trust starts with open communication, getting to know your team members and their daily routines such as whether they are a morning person or not. Give them tasks strategically when you know they will be at their best and trust them to be responsible and complete the tasks without being micromanaged.
Social Interaction in the current climate is almost impossible, so why not try a virtual ‘Friday drinks’, we have done this with great success. It gives the team a sense of togetherness and an opportunity to review the week’s work and to socialize and get to know each other better. I also organize an annual get together in one location where we perform team building activities, discuss business strategies for the year ahead and do fun social activities while getting to know each other better.
Do your research when it comes to choosing the right tools to operate cohesively as a remote team, I highly recommend Slack for internal communication, it is free and really easy to use on both desktop and mobile. An integrative project management system is also essential so that teams can work on projects together but remotely.
As human beings we are motivated by varying goals. We all have our daily tasks to work on and through our project management system, I can set clear goals for each individual and each team. I like to also create exciting new internal projects to keep everyone learning and motivated. We are about to launch our own business podcast “Mash Pod”, so watch this space!
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 think constructive criticism is really task-specific so while facial expressions can be helpful, they can also go against you if they are read the wrong way. So, I think when you’re giving constructive criticism, the focus should be on making sure you remove all emotions and make it very specific and targeted. That way it can’t be misconstrued by any emotion interpreted from a facial expression. In situations where you really feel that facial expression and body language will be helpful when giving constructive criticism, I would recommend a video chat. By acknowledging anything that has been done well in the same conversation, you can soften the criticism so that it doesn’t come across as too harsh.
Can you specifically address how to give constructive feedback over email? How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?
I believe that no matter how hard you try to make an email come across in a particular way, people can still read it differently. So, when it comes to giving feedback, I prefer doing it over the phone first. It gives you the opportunity to judge how they are reacting to your constructive criticism and you can work on a plan together. If it needs to be sent in an email, you know that you have already discussed it, and it’s not going to be taken the wrong way. I think a lot can be said for actually having a conversation as opposed to just sending out an email. If email is the only way you can communicate at the time, you can soften the criticism by finding something in the recipient’s work to praise as well.
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?
Some of the obstacles for people who are not used to working from home are that they can feel isolated and miss the personal interaction with colleagues. They also need to be very disciplined to separate their home life from work. Additionally, they need to have a functional set up with all the equipment they need. I would advise them to set up a communication strategy with their colleagues such as a daily or weekly video chat either one on one or as a group, to reduce the sense of isolation. If possible, set up a work area that is separate from the living areas of the home so that they can remove themselves from the work environment after hours and not be distracted by home duties while working.
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?
One of the hardest parts of having a successful remote team is ensuring that the individual members can feel like they’re part of a team.
It is important to make all employees feel that they are in a team with regular video meetings and having an integrated project management system where each one can see what others are doing. I have also found it useful for the team to share ideas about how to remain positive and motivated while working remotely.
I believe it is necessary to make sure that there is open communication and add a bit of fun and humor. For example, we do some ‘dad jokes’ on one of our Slack channels and everybody gets on board and has a laugh. We have our occasional Friday ‘virtual drinks’ where we get together on video and bring a drink. We wind up the week with a chat about our work progress and achievements and some social chat about plans for the weekend. Even though my team works remotely and some completely on their own, I believe having these virtual get togethers helps them to feel like they know each other and are truly a team.
I think the key thing is to make sure your employees aren’t feeling isolated and out there on their own. Ensure that they are feeling supported and know that they are an important part of a well-loaded machine. Everyone needs to know that they have got a greater purpose, and they are a part of something.
Lastly, I let my team know that I am available to them to chat any time if they have concerns about their job or projects they are working on or even if they just need a chat.
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 make education more available to more people. I believe knowledge is powerful, which is why I always try to educate my clients on the “why” of our strategies as well as the how and the expected results. I believe everyone can feel more confident committing to something if they understand it and the benefits it will bring.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is actually one from Walt Disney that says: “Everyone can achieve their dreams if they have the power to pursue them”. I grew up in a household where my parents were always there, were always very motivating and they always gave me similar advice. They always said you can be whatever you want to be, you just have to put your mind to it and work hard for it. I believe that the first step to any goal is to dream about it but it’s not enough just to dream about it, you have to actually go after it and make it a reality.
Thank you for these great insights!