Embrace The New Work Environment: Working by remote can affect participation and also lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications, particularly when team members don’t know each others’ challenges and limitations. One way to address those is to normalize the new work environment, which is vastly different for each of your team members, especially considering the relatively homogenous environment which exists in the office. Your team members have different challenges and distractions, even with relatively common things, such as kids or a spouse. People live differently even when it comes to interacting with their loved ones. Therefore, the more your coworkers know about each other’s new work situations, the better they will communicate and the more connected they will feel to each other. For example, without putting people on the spot, encourage virtual tours of their work stations or offices. Some may be sharing their workspace with others in their home. It is important to let them know that you appreciate the challenges they face and the effort they are making. Also, do your best to avoid singling people out in meetings when it comes to things like background noise. Instead, implement procedures, such as muting when not speaking.
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 Shawn Khorrami of Khorrami Consulting.
Shawn is a serial entrepreneur, having started and managed more than a dozen businesses involving products and services across a wide range of verticals. In the process, he has managed thousands of employees servicing tens of thousands of customers, large and small, from consumers to SMBs and even governmental entities. He has formal education and extensive hands-on experience in business operations, strategies and planning, marketing, sales, finance, legal, and human resources. He has obtained university diplomas in mathematics, economics, and computers, and earned a law degree.
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?
Well before attending college, I noticed that I was always interested in creating something rather than just doing a job. I think that’s the reason that my career as an entrepreneur started when I was a teenager. When I was in high school, I began a real estate management firm with a focus on using automation to drive expansion and revenues. I spun off that business in favor of finishing college where I obtained degrees in mathematics, economics, and computers, and later obtained a law degree. Regardless of my personal or professional circumstances, I found that I was consistently drawn to creating systems that would serve various needs that I was able to identify depending on the industry in which I was focused.
This resulted in a constant stream of ideas geared toward improving products and services so that businesses can be more efficient and better service their clients whether those clients were businesses or individual consumers. This resulted in the businesses that I created across an array of industries. Along the way, I’ve had some phenomenal successes and catastrophic failures. I’ve learned that the key is to first continue to innovate and improve, and second to use failures as learning experiences. I’ve also learned that I love creating and growing companies and perhaps even more than that enjoy getting to know and work with different partners with varying perspectives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It’s hard to pick any one story. I have a lot of stories that I think are equally interesting. One of the things that I had the privilege of doing was to have my law firm represent the residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward with regard with the virtual destruction of the entire area during Hurricane Katrina. We represented some 30,000 residents in cases involving the negligence of various entities which caused the Lower Ninth Ward to be virtually completely decimated. As part of that case, we organized a trip for the team that was working on those cases in order for them to see the sheer destruction and also to meet some of their clients personally. Our team was able to see firsthand plots of land where violent flooding had completely removed all structures. They were able to see where the levies had breached — the sheer size of the breaches. And they were able to see hope in those who were working hard to rebuild, and also see the fruits of their own labor inside the area.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The shortest distance between two points is a series of daily purposeful steps. This has been the way that I have lived my life. It allows me not only to achieve goals, but to do so in spite of short term events and setbacks. Regardless of what is occurring around me, I keep my goals in focus, setting new ones as I go along, and assure that I am taking purposeful, meaningful steps on a daily basis toward them.
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?
Without question, my father. Rather than try to share a story, I would share the sacrifice that my father (both of my parents) made, solely for the benefit of me and my sister. Both of them were accomplished and well engrained in Iran. My father was a 50% owner of a successful construction company and my mother was a professor at the University of Tehran. After the Iranian revolution, they decided that the political and economic climate was not appropriate for the two of us. In their forties, established in their careers, my parents uprooted themselves, leaving their careers and their lives to come to a foreign country (the US) and rebuilding their lives from scratch solely because of their two children.
For months, as my sister and I did not know any English, and while having to restart his entire life from scratch during the days, my father still found time every single night to spend hours reading our textbooks, translating them to us and working with us to complete homework.
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?
There are many reasons that it is beneficial to have a team physically together. Having a physical location to gather for the primary purpose of growing a venture, in and of itself, means focus on the venture and stepping away from other distractions. This provides a forum that fosters and allows for more efficient sharing of ideas. It also encourages team building as well as creating and defining corporate culture. A physical office also allows for leaders to better monitor their teams, to better mentor those teams, and for those teams to “learn by example,” seeing the work ethics, social interactions, and professional behavior of their leaders. Being in physical proximity of each other, team members also develop closer bonds, and learn to better empathize with each other’s situations, and limitations.
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?
Not having teams in the same space presents a number of challenges. For example, communication becomes less personal and more challenged. Electronic communication such as email or instant messaging misses a number of elements and can easily lead to miscommunications. That’s true with phone calls and even video chats, even though those are certainly better than emails. Also, team building exercises become more challenging. The same is true of mentoring and modeling of leaders.
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.)
- Break Isolation by Increasing Personal Interactions: Isolation and fragmentation lowers engagement, productivity, and morale. It is incumbent on leaders and managers to meet this head on. It all starts with communication. You must take every opportunity to assure that team members are clear on goals, assignments, and their respective roles. This is especially true in light of the continuous stream of challenges that the pandemic throws at businesses.
- Have regular meetings/create more humanized communication: One of the main benefits of being in the same physical space is that team members are closed off in the same place together with fewer outside distractions. A remote workforce benefits from more regular meetings to assure focus and team building. Regular standing meetings also will get your team used to meeting and reporting on a regular basis. Additionally, it is easier to cancel a standing meeting if it is not necessary or circumstances mandate rather than to coordinate schedules each time you want a meeting. Additionally, it is important to have more humanized communication. This means having meetings using video, FaceTime, Google Meet, Zoom, and the like.
- Be Inclusive: All of us have team members that we favor over others. We either find them to be easier to work with or easier to get along with or just more competent. We tend to keep in contact and communicate more with those who for whatever reason we favor. Conversely, we tend to refrain from or even dread communicating with other team members. Especially when dealing with a remote workforce, it is important for leaders and managers to avoid this bias. Keep an accounting either through your professional software or even in the form of a chart of all of your team members, and when you last corresponded with them either in a group or individual setting. Also, keep an accounting of when you last gave them an assignment and assure that you are dividing up responsibilities as equitably as possible.
- Create Virtual Breakroom: When everyone is working remotely, we no longer pass in hallways or have impromptu meetings in the break room or office kitchen. These are informal contacts that are important in team building, and create a sense of belonging. They are also important opportunities for moving projects forward without the pressure and formalities of scheduled meetings. Recreate these by having more one on one time peppered with more small talk. Also, encourage team members to call each other as needed rather than just during scheduled times.
- Embrace New Work Environment: Working by remote can affect participation and also lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications, particularly when team members don’t know each others’ challenges and limitations. One way to address those is to normalize the new work environment, which is vastly different for each of your team members, especially considering the relatively homogenous environment which exists in the office. Your team members have different challenges and distractions, even with relatively common things, such as kids or a spouse. People live differently even when it comes to interacting with their loved ones. Therefore, the more your coworkers know about each other’s new work situations, the better they will communicate and the more connected they will feel to each other. For example, without putting people on the spot, encourage virtual tours of their work stations or offices. Some may be sharing their workspace with others in their home. It is important to let them know that you appreciate the challenges they face and the effort they are making. Also, do your best to avoid singling people out in meetings when it comes to things like background noise. Instead, implement procedures, such as muting when not speaking.
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?
The pandemic has certainly created changes and accelerated many trends, among them a remote workforce. For our organization, this has been less of a challenge than an opportunity both in terms of productivity and recruiting. We were already increasingly integrating G-suite tools and Slack. The pandemic accelerated that integration. In terms of cellphones, we have allowed our team to use their personal devices, but we expect to implement some changes in the near future.
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?
Google Workspace (formerly G-Suite), Slack, and Zoom
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
In terms of a feature or system, it would have to be focused on either recreating or getting close to recreating the experience of being in the physical presence of others. Clearly, that is something that is already in the works with companies working on VR experiences for meetings and conferences. I think to the extent that we are moving to remote working arrangements, these types of tools/features would be key.
My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?
The pandemic has certainly changed the need for unified communications. Any disruption as massive as the pandemic is going to cause changes to significant aspects of life. I think that there was already a move by the various providers of communication tools to be somewhat headless, meaning to readily be able to integrate with other tools. The pandemic has caused some acceleration of that process. At the same time, there appears to be some fragmentation where it comes to communication tools as people and businesses have had to make rapid adjustments in order to move things forward. It will be interesting to see where it all levels out.
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?
The tech that’s coming down the pike that intrigues me is some of the VR that’s being developed specific to recreating the business environment. There are tools being developed by companies big and small to enhance the virtual meeting, including holographic images that I think are going to be very exciting once they reach some maturity.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
The concern I would have is shifting completely away from physical proximity where teams never physically gather and meetings are all done virtually and/or by remote. I think that while it is important to take advantage of the technological tools and advances that we have available to us, it is equally important to assure that we do not completely lose the physical meeting or gathering.
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?
Our communications were almost exclusively digital before the pandemic. In the organizations which I manage, the biggest change has been improving the customer journey. There has been significant shifts in customer behavior and expectation. Meeting and exceeding those has been the main focus for us.
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?
To begin with, when providing constructive criticism, try to use a communication tool which is as robust as possible. Try to avoid emailing or instant messaging. Instead, opt for a video conferencing system, like a Zoom. Also, it is important to assure that the parties are not just calling in or disabling their cameras. That would defeat the purpose. Additionally, it is crucial to pick your words carefully in order to assure that there is not a miscommunication or that you do not come off as harsh or aggressive. It is important to maintain your professionalism.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
To begin with, a number of the tools to create better communication which I mention above are also good for creating a sense of camaraderie. For example, being inclusive, creating a virtual breakroom, and embracing the virtual work environment are all things that not only improve communication, but help team members feel like they’re part of a team. These include things like icebreakers at the start of meetings. These are quick, they create connection, and allow everyone at the meeting to loosen up a bit. You can also arrange for different types of activities that can range from 30 minutes to several hours that are meant for team building. These can be done by you or through organizations that will host and run them for small and large teams. These may include various team games such as game show type events or murder mysteries, or even scavenger hunts. The possibilities are endless. You should choose ones that are comfortable for you and best fit your team.
Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. 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 think I’m where Bill Gates has been on this. I don’t know if it’s a movement or one that has not already been inspired, but I believe that helping eradicate and control diseases by helping provide vaccinations and treatment across the globe is probably what would do the most good for the most number of people.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My work can be followed on my website (khorramiconsulting.com) or through LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/shawnkhorrami/) or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/KhorramiConsulting). I post fresh ideas on different aspects and challenges of running a business regularly.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.