Simon Slade: “Remote employees need to feel connected”

If you’re concerned about how your feedback might come off to an employee, I suggest using a video recording system like Loom to just record a quick video explaining your constructive criticism. Not only will this give you the opportunity to share facial expressions and body language that might comfort the employee, but they will […]

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If you’re concerned about how your feedback might come off to an employee, I suggest using a video recording system like Loom to just record a quick video explaining your constructive criticism. Not only will this give you the opportunity to share facial expressions and body language that might comfort the employee, but they will also hear the intonation in your voice — something that is arguably the most important factor when trying to express a difficult message with tact.

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

Simon Slade is CEO and co-founder of Affilorama, SaleHoo and co-founder of Smtp2Go. Through these companies, Simon provides education and resources for ecommerce professionals to start their own drop shipping business, build an affiliate marketing business and achieve occupational independence. Simon can be followed on LinkedIn and regularly comments for Forbes, Fortune, SMH and NZ Business.

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 and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. I graduated from Griffith University in 2003 with a Bachelor of Business Management and a degree in marketing. As an online seller on TradeMe, New Zealand’s local auction site, I received many inquiries about where I found my suppliers. I saw the opportunity to help others jumpstart their online sales gigs and developed the concept for SaleHoo, an online directory of verified wholesale suppliers. When SaleHoo amassed 10,000 members in just eight months, we used that momentum to launch Mark’s business idea, Affilorama, an affiliate marketing training portal. From there, we built the parent company, Doubledot Media. I’m also a co-founder of Smtp2Go, an email delivery service.

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

One surprising “learning moment” that we had a few years back was in the early days of our company Affilorama. Affilorama started as a paid-only service, but we were disappointed by its early financial results. So we took a risk and changed our pricing structure to include two options for access to Affilorama: a base option that made some features available for free, and a premium option that came with a monthly fee. Within the first month of implementing our new pricing strategy, our revenue and customer base tripled! The free plan has not negatively impacted our revenue, and our customer base continues to grow. It seemed counterintuitive that offering a free plan actually improved our profit, but it generated interest in our product and proved its value to customers, which worked out well for us in the long run.

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?

It’s funny upon reflection because it was so long ago, but it certainly wasn’t funny at the time. In the early stages of SaleHoo, my co-founder and I contracted a web design agency that charged us 35,000 dollars and ultimately presented us with a product we couldn’t use. That money was basically wasted, much to our dismay. But we picked ourselves up and brought in a freelance designer who charged a third of the price, had a greater understanding of the project and presented us with an excellent final product. Based on this experience and other ones like it, I learned that most of the time, startups should spend a little more time researching and hiring a freelancer rather than paying exorbitant agency prices. Paying more does not always mean you’ll receive the best product, and in the early phases of your business, every penny counts.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

I think there are two keys to avoiding employee burnout: flexibility and culture. (And I suppose these could go hand-in-hand by making flexibility a distinct part of your company culture.) A fruitful remote company culture will offer plenty of opportunities for social engagement and fun — for instance, my remote employees gather for an annual vacation where they get to relax and spend some time in-person. Social experiences like this will help employees avoid work burnout. A company that truly values flexibility will allow employees to organize their work around their life rather than organizing their life around their work. This is another key piece to ensuring your employees thrive.

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?

The majority of our staff have been remote for about 10 years.

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?

The five main challenges for managing a remote team are: onboarding, communication, culture, assessment, and connectivity (both personal and professional). Onboarding can be a unique challenge because you have to create a detailed, functional, and completely hands-off way to train new employees. Communication is obviously a challenge because it has to be far more intentional with a remote team — there’s no chit-chatting around the water cooler. This is the same reason that culture becomes a challenge: the social element isn’t built-in for a remote team, so it has to be constructed more intentionally. Assessment is difficult on a remote level because we are so conditioned to using visual and in-person cues to identify productivity. When those cues are taken away, we have to find a new way to assess our employees. Perhaps the overarching theme for all of these challenges is the issue of connectivity. Remote employees need to feel connected — to each other, to the company, to their work and supervisors and bosses. Creating a sense of connectivity among your remote team is the ultimate challenge.

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

Some of these problems go hand-in-hand and can be solved with the same strategy or tool. For example, communication, culture and connectivity can all be solved by having a project management system where employees can share information with each other directly on projects. When an employee can apply their input or complete their task on a project directly rather than having to communicate on an additional channel, such as email or phone, things are streamlined and simplified. Everyone is on the same page, communicating well and feeling connected to one another. This alone will create a better company culture, but there also has to be a fun and playful outlet of the same nature — a chat room or virtual space where your employees can gather to communicate about non-work things and build personal relationships. This is the core of a good company culture — a communicative, well-connected team. Similarly, the challenge of onboarding a remote team member is dramatically simplified by these project management systems and detailed outlines of projects and tasks. If your social media manager has been providing details about their techniques and tasks over the last year, this essentially provides a pre-made handbook for a newly-hired manager in the same position.

I also think this ties into effective assessment. A remote team benefits enormously from a peer-to-peer review system, where managers and supervisors can get feedback from teammates about everyone’s performance, as well as self-assessment, where employees can reflect on their individual progress and productivity. Managers and owners aren’t going to be able to assess employees effectively if they don’t see them regularly or work with them on an individual basis, so remote assessment has to rely more heavily on direct co-workers and the employees’ themselves. This is not to say peer assessment should replace a manager’s evaluation of an employees’ performance, but that the two can work together as an effective remote assessment system.

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?

If you’re concerned about how your feedback might come off to an employee, I suggest using a video recording system like Loom to just record a quick video explaining your constructive criticism. Not only will this give you the opportunity to share facial expressions and body language that might comfort the employee, but they will also hear the intonation in your voice — something that is arguably the most important factor when trying to express a difficult message with tact.

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

Again, I would always recommend recording a super-fast video if the feedback is really sensitive or complex. But another thing to consider is that someone who is hyper-sensitive to feedback, or struggles with constructive criticism in the written form, might not be best-suited to a remote team. Effective remote hiring is the first step in effective remote management. You should be able to trust your team members to embrace your communication style as a manager without taking things too personally. That said, emoticons are always a great way to soften a message that might otherwise sound tough. 🙂 Furthermore, constructive criticism is always softened by a sense of empathy: phrases like “I’ve struggled with this before, too…” or “When I first started here, I didn’t realize [xyz].” This kind of commiseration can make an employee’s shortcomings seem more universal and less dramatic.

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?

Newly remote teams are going to realize very quickly that email is a clunky and ineffective way for teams to communicate on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. If a team has gone remote without the proper technology, there are going to be setbacks and delays. Hosting a zoom meeting in place of every in-person meeting is also not an effective solution. It’s important that leaders and executives provide a newly-remote team with the technology and infrastructure they need to work effectively in a remote setting. Until this is made possible, employees need to be patient with themselves and each other.

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?

I’ve always advised that managers and executives, while maintaining their decision-making power and independence, include team members in structural decisions about the company. Open lines of communication and solicit ideas from all levels of the company when trying to make large-scale decision about the company’s future. This creates a sense of camaraderie among the team and helps everyone to feel like they are part of an inclusive mission.

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 want more people to have a healthy work/life balance. I think when people have a more flexible schedule, they are more productive at work, happier and healthier. I think if we can start centralizing work/life balance as a cultural value, we’ll all be better off.

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

Steve Jobs said, ‘The only way to do great work is to love what you do.’ This advice gave me the courage to pursue a career as an entrepreneur. Three businesses later, I couldn’t be happier with my decision. Being my own boss is a significant factor in my love for my job, and I love that my businesses, Affilorama, SaleHoo and Doubledot Media Limited, help others to also become their own bosses through e-commerce pursuits. It is my hope that our companies help others achieve occupational freedom so that our customers, too, love what they do.

Thank you for these great insights!

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