One of the most important things to account for when trying to communicate with a team, remotely and effectively, is ensuring that your team is available during the times necessary. Sometimes while working remote you can shift the times that you are online and working depending on the type of job and role you are in. Likewise, sometimes you can take a break to step out, cook something, play with the dog, or whatever. We don’t have any problem with that, as long as our staff is getting their work done, but it does create some scheduling challenges.
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 interviewingStewart J. Guss.
Stewart J. Guss has been practicing personal injury law for over 20 years, representing clients from all over the world in the most serious and catastrophic injury claims. Since starting his own firm in 1999, he has garnered national recognition and enjoyed steady growth, now operating several offices across four states and employing over 130 dedicated legal professionals. Stewart grew up in Houston, Texas, where his father worked for NASA. Stewart obtained his Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Texas at Austin and went on to earn his Juris Doctor Degree from the University of Houston Law Center. An active member of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, Stewart has also been recognized by the National Association of Distinguished Counsel as one of the top one percent of personal injury attorneys in the country in 2015; by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the top 100 trial lawyers in the nation in 2016; and as one of the “Best Attorneys in America” by the prestigious Rue Ratings since 2015. He has also been designated one of the Top Personal Injury Attorneys by Houstonia Magazine for 2013–2017, every year since it began publishing its rankings. As a firm believer in the need to “pay it forward,” Stewart is also an active philanthropist. In addition to sponsoring annual college scholarships, he established, runs, and funds Houston’s Unsung Greats “HUG” Award. Stewart supports numerous charities, including Reach Unlimited and the MS150, and is also a patron of the arts, underwriting both Stageworks Theater and the Houston Gilbert and Sullivan Society. Today, Stewart lives in northwest Houston with his wife, his two teenage children, and his two dogs.
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?
I grew up just south of Houston, Texas, in a suburb called Clear Lake City. My father worked at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which meant I was lucky enough to grow up around the children of rocket scientists! I was an avid reader as a kid, and after attending the University of Texas at Austin for my undergrad degree, I studied in the MBA program at the University of Texas’ Red McCombs School of Business. I earned my law degree from the University of Houston Law Center, started my own personal injury practice in 1999, and have called Houston home ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I was just starting out as a lawyer, I was hired to represent someone in a particularly tense, contentious case. The two parties couldn’t stand each other, and the opposing lawyer was outright hostile to me. I tried to give her a taste of her own medicine, but that got us nowhere and only wasted the precious time and money of our clients. One day, however, I was in a meeting at her office and I saw a picture of a dog on her desk. I decided to ask her about the photo, and immediately, her demeanor changed. It was like a switch had been flipped. Soon we were chatting amicably about our pets with smiles on our faces. As we transitioned our conversation back to business, it was clear that things were different. (Better!) Our working relationship transformed into a productive one, and we were able to settle the case within just a few weeks. This experience solidified a life lesson for me: always try to connect with others on a human level, even if they’re your adversaries. From there, only good things can happen!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
While walking with me in my elementary school, my father taught me a very important lesson. The school janitor was sweeping further down the hallway, and my father pointed to him and said to me, “Son, no matter who you turn out to be, or what you accomplish in your life, always remember that you are no better a person than him, or anyone else. And you are no less a person than anyone, even the biggest celebrity or most powerful politician.” He made sure I understood that everyone in life is important and has a purpose, and that we are all vital parts of the grand web of humanity. My father’s wisdom to me as a child has given me the gift of this perspective: That everyone matters, everyone is important, and we should all respect one another, no matter what path we are on in our journey through life.
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?
My maternal grandfather Morris was a big inspiration. His family immigrated from Russia to New York when he was just a young boy, and he soon took a job as a house painter. He spent decades carrying heavy paint cans up and down tenement stairs every day, trying to earn enough to create a better life for his daughters, who happened to be my mother and my aunt. Thanks to his hard work, my mom was able to attend college, and she never took that opportunity for granted. When she had children of her own she strongly encouraged them to focus on education as well, which led to me excelling in law school. Now I’ve built a national law firm with 130 attorneys and staff in 8 offices over 4 states, handling thousands of active cases at once. It’s very hard work, and takes a lot of time and effort on my part. Any time I get tired, frustrated, or discouraged about some issue at work, however, I imagine my Grandpa Morris carrying those gallons of paint up those stairs, and I remember that he did that not only for his daughter — my mother — but for me as well. The least I can do is stick with my hard work, as I try and take care of my own family.
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?
I think one of the advantages of having your team physically in the same space is it allows for extended dialogs and spontaneous inspiration. When you’re remote, you don’t have the same ability to discuss and talk through challenges or ideas in the same way as when you’re just being present with others. There is some loss of spontaneity when you have to schedule a video chat to discuss opportunities or talk through challenges. No one likes awkward silences or “dead air” on Zoom, which can sometimes lead to people rushing through meetings. In person, ideas get organically discussed as they pop up throughout the day, and brainstorming comes more naturally. There are social aspects that are lost being remote that you can’t replicate via a video chat. It’s much more difficult to bond and focus on team building exercises and activities being remote. Depending on the type of position, there’s a level of accountability that is lost when a team must go remote. Around the office, the executives were always open to questions from any level, any department. When onboarding new hires, we would have a “meet the execs” function where we spend a few hours introducing ourselves, telling our stories, and welcoming the “incoming class.” I always emphasize the importance of viewing everyone as not only equal, but approachable! It can be difficult to achieve this same tone and level of comfort remotely.
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?
As our law firm has grown, we’ve had to be careful to watch out for our staff and help them avoid getting “tunnel vision” about their jobs and their departments. Tunnel vision presented a challenge wherein an employee really only knew their job, their niche, their department, and did not fully understand or appreciate what other employees in other departments contributed to our overall mission. We found out this could lead to confusion, resentment, and a lack of interdepartmental teamwork. Remote workers are even more susceptible to this sense of isolation. To combat this, we developed a program of “internal internships” where we would have employees in one department cycle through and spend time in all other departments, learning their functions and getting to know their co-workers. This program helped our employees gain a greater understanding of “how all the pieces fit together,” and resulted in boosts in morale, motivation, and teamwork. We find that these interactions work best in a physical space. While we are able to continue this program remotely via screen sharing and video conferencing, it’s just not the same.
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.)
*1 One of the most important things to account for when trying to communicate with a team, remotely and effectively, is ensuring that your team is available during the times necessary. Sometimes while working remote you can shift the times that you are online and working depending on the type of job and role you are in. Likewise, sometimes you can take a break to step out, cook something, play with the dog, or whatever. We don’t have any problem with that, as long as our staff is getting their work done, but it does create some scheduling challenges.
Another example: Some of our team members tend to work better at night. They are creative and tend to work when inspiration hits. This is also 100% encouraged with our team; however, it is important to stay in communication with your team, letting everyone know when you will be on and if you have shifted your hours of operation due to working outside of the normal business hours.
*2 Keeping your expectations crystal clear is critical in order to avoid delays. Keeping everyone on the same page and working toward the same goals can get difficult when you’re not in the same space, so always get clear confirmation from your team. Ensure that they are able to articulate and “mirror back” what you’re asking them to accomplish on any given day. For example, one area that I have seen my team struggle is when we have to deploy a project quickly. In issuing what seem to be simple instructions, I’ll later discover someone needed extra time to hop on a video call and really go over what is expected. Sometimes the left hand and the right hand know what the other are doing, but not necessarily in what ORDER they are doing it, or on what timeline. Know what needs to be delivered and when, and who is taking responsibility for it.
*3 As a company, being prepared sometimes means providing all of the necessary equipment needed to keep your team productive while transitioning to remote work. Make sure that everyone on your team has a dedicated work space at their home. This is critical to be able to meet and communicate properly with your team without distractions. In 2020, people working from home often did so on short notice. They didn’t have the proper set up, they didn’t have a home environment conducive to remote work, and their work sometimes suffered for it. Luckily, as our national headquarters are in near-coastal city (Houston), preparations to work remotely are part of our DNA.
*4 One thing to not overlook is ensuring that everyone on your team has a good internet connection at home. As we started working more remotely, we were pretty surprised at the disparity in internet speeds at folks’ homes. When working remotely, it’s imperative everyone has the latest technology as well. For example, a staff member may have perfectly fast internet, but perhaps their wifi router is out of date, or needs a firmware upgrade. Make sure you have sufficient IT support to identify, diagnose, and help your team resolve such issues when possible. We have had some struggle with some employees not having access to fast enough internet where they live to be able to work remotely productively. This poses a serious challenge during a pandemic, but in these instances, we have set up isolated areas in our office for these people to come in and work. It is not ideal, but the important lesson here is that as a company we have to be flexible and understanding with each individual’s circumstances and work with them to ensure we’re all still able to get the job done.
*5 Having a good cloud-based project management tool that everyone on the team has access to is critical. This will help you track and communicate with your remote team, plus it keeps everyone accountable and on the same page. It will also help track productivity, outlining when projects are due and who is working on what. For example, we use a tool called Wrike. However, there are many on the market. Trello is a solid option, as well as Asana which is one of my personal favorites. Don’t overlook the need for a good project management tool to keep your team well-organized, on track, and accountable.
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?
Our company utilizes a hosted VOIP phone system. We provide everything needed for them to do their jobs without the need to use their own equipment. Since our headquarters are located in flood-prone Houston and we also have offices in New Orleans, the company already had a robust “emergency” business continuity plan in place. This allowed us to transition more than 90% of our employees to working from home within a matter of days. This also ensured the safety and wellbeing of our employees while at the same time allowing us to continue to take care of our client’s needs by providing virtual consultations.
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?
While there isn’t a tool that I have found that can replicate the same type of experience as having everyone in the same physical space, our approach to working from home is best summarized as “no man is an island.” Our employees stay in constant contact with one another by using collaborative Google docs and slides, Microsoft Teams chat, project management applications like Wrike, and of course Zoom. We use these tools for teamwork. We want to ensure everyone is working toward the same goal and that no one feels alone on their own “island” of work. (This is a problem departments may encounter even when they work together in an office!) By checking in once or twice a day, team leaders are able to make themselves available and help everyone stay properly prioritized without hovering or micromanaging. Communication and accountability are key, but so is flexibility. We know the home lives of many employees have undergone changes, and we try to accommodate them so long as all our goals are still being met. We keep the focus on productivity and reaching goals, not on clocking in and out.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
I think VR could play a major role in the next type of professional communication system. With VR you can build virtual offices and avatars that could interact seamlessly as if you were sharing the same physical space. This would be a great tool/feature to be able to deploy. I think this would bridge the gap on both sides, pleasing those who are for remote work and those who are against it.
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?
Honestly the pandemic hasn’t changed the need or appeal much for unified communications, we just utilize this technology a lot more now because of the pandemic. Our home base is in Texas, and when winter storm Uri hit we were left without the ability to communicate via any method for days. Many of our team had no electricity, no internet, and no phone service. This really highlighted how dependent we are on this type of technology. One thing that has changed for us is that we know we have to build in redundant redundancies (see what I did there?) to ensure that — regardless of the circumstances — we can remain in communication. This is critical for the survival of any business.
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?
Today, a full 90%+ of our new clients are interviewed and signed up via the internet and various E-sign technology. 10 years ago, signing a new client took appointment scheduling, man power, and resource allocation. Today, it is quite common that our intake department takes a new call or incoming chat request, visits with the client, confirms the case is qualified, and has a signed representation agreement before the end of the very first call! This would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. Likewise, 10 years ago, most of my collaboration with out-of-the-area and out-of-state attorneys and adjusters would end up involving road travel. Because of the speed, clarity, and reliability of various videoconferencing platforms, I would estimate that 80% of our business meetings today are virtual, and will remain so, even after the pandemic.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Not at all. We have to embrace change and always look to the future and try and stay ahead of the curve to remain competitive in whatever business you are in. Being able to work remote as effectively or in some cases even more effectively opens up many more opportunities that would otherwise not be possible. For example it is not uncommon to build fully remote “in-house” overseas teams. This gives businesses the access to the best talent on the planet.
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?
We’ve lightly toyed with chatbots but in general, in our line of business, human connection and empathy is important. For our personal injury law firm, remote work meant it was crucial that we set up everyone in our intake department with video conferencing abilities. They can now provide virtual consultations to potential clients from their home offices. Seeing a smiling face can make all the difference, especially in our industry. Stagnation can also be a problem for businesses who are transitioning from a physical space to a remote environment. It may be harder to attract new clients, and existing clients may drop off as they tighten their budgets in this chaotic time. Make sure you have a strong digital marketing strategy in place as you make this transition, and appropriately address any reasons a new client might hesitate to work with you.
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?
I’ve always respected a healthy work/life balance and stressed self-care. Even when I was working 14-hour days to build my business into what it is today, I knew when I needed to concede to a catnap on my office couch, and I expect the same from my employees. When I have to deliver criticism to someone, I always make sure to do so privately, and I just start by remembering we are all human and we are all juggling responsibilities around our home office — whether it’s kids, pets, relatives, etc.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
This is definitely a challenge. In the days before COVID, I’d suggest consistently organizing face-to-face team-building activities for your remote employees. This would ensure that those bonds are formed between coworkers. Some bonds just can’t be made from a screen. I generally try to schedule meetings for just a bit longer than may be needed, so that the team can “kibbitz” and catch up with one another, and maybe even tell a joke or two.
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. 🙂
In a way, I already have! My wife and I are in the process of setting up a charitable foundation that we will fund to support people and organizations that are doing good in the world for causes in which we believe. We’ve actually already started, and it is one of the most gratifying parts of my current life and lifestyle. I’m proud of my success, but even more proud of my efforts to “pay it forward.”
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our website is attorneyguss.com and our Facebook page is facebook.com/Stewart.Guss.Houston.Accident.Attorney I’m also in the process of writing a book outlining my experiences in life and business, sharing the lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.