Sumir Karayi of 1E: “Executives find it hard to give up on presenteeism”

Executives find it hard to give up on presenteeism: Because, for the most part, executives tend to be older and a bit more old fashioned, they’ve grown accustomed to the culture of working long hours and expecting the same from everyone else. This can be problematic and is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking about […]

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Executives find it hard to give up on presenteeism: Because, for the most part, executives tend to be older and a bit more old fashioned, they’ve grown accustomed to the culture of working long hours and expecting the same from everyone else. This can be problematic and is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking about productivity and how people work in general.

As a part of our series about “Five Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Remote Team”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sumir Karayi, CEO and founder of 1E.

Sumir Karayi founded 1E in 1997 with the goal to automate endpoint management. Sumir pioneered PC power management along with 40 other patented inventions and now leads 1E’s focus on “real-time digital experience management”.

Under Sumir’s leadership, 1E has achieved 2.5bn dollars in IT cost savings for customers through automation. 1E has been recognized as one of the top 20 companies to watch by CIO magazine.

1E remains privately held and is headquartered in London with offices in New York, Ireland, Australia, and Delhi with 26 million licenses deployed across more than 1,700 organizations in 42 countries worldwide.

Sumir is a passionate believer in philanthropy and charitable giving. He sponsors research to improve gender-based inequality with Warwick and Delhi universities. He has also supported the Manav Mandir Ashram Orphanage and other charities in India over the last 20 years.

Sumir gained a BEng in Electronic Engineering and MSc in IT from Warwick University.

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 originally got my start in managing computer networks with organizations like the BBC, Reuters and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Like now, space was continually changing and it was a challenge to keep pace. Every year you had to develop new skills to adapt and keep up with the evolving market. I quickly learned that being forward-thinking and nimble can get you far in this industry. Eventually, Microsoft asked me to come on board as a senior contractor because of my background and experience. While I enjoyed my time at Microsoft, I ultimately realized I wasn’t interested in a permanent position. I had more of an entrepreneurial spirit and decided to start my own business.

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

During the early days of my career, I was commuting anywhere from 3 to 4 hours a day. Not only did this take a toll on my personal life, but I realized it was hindering my professional growth as well. Just imagine how detrimental a commute of this kind could be for someone starting a business, or even starting a family. In fact, these commutes actually helped inspire the idea behind 1E. Fundamentally, 1E’s mission is to help improve employee digital experience, whether an employee is in the office or remote.

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?

I’m not sure how funny this is, but it was a good learning experience. In 1999, I started a business named OfficeOnTheNet to help companies shift to remote-first work. While the idea was there, the timing was all wrong. The technology worked, but the market wasn’t ready. I learned that timing is everything and can make or break even the most brilliant of ideas. OfficeOnTheNext was a bit before it’s time, but we are there now and I am delighted we are.

What advice would you give to other business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

From the latest 1E post-pandemic research, 3 times the number of IT professionals feel more energized than burnt out and 4 times stated they were less stressed since working from home. This is likely because they aren’t commuting which allows them to spend more time with their families and achieve a better work-life balance. I would encourage business leaders to consider these benefits of remote working and adopt it wholeheartedly.

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 about 23 years of experience managing remote teams. At 1E, we’ve been helping companies shift to a remote model for more than 20 years now.

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?

  1. Executives find it hard to give up on presenteeism: Because, for the most part, executives tend to be older and a bit more old fashioned, they’ve grown accustomed to the culture of working long hours and expecting the same from everyone else. This can be problematic and is a fundamentally flawed way of thinking about productivity and how people work in general.
  2. Communication and collaboration tools cause disruption: Remote employees are constantly needing to update Zoom or Teams for these tools to work properly, which can be disruptive. Employees are also primarily using these platforms just to talk to people, rather than interface with their organization or work. So, they’re constantly switching between Google docs, Slack and various video platforms to do different things, which can cause unnecessary friction and slow down productivity.
  3. Collaboration requires more discipline when everyone is remote: When you’re in the office and sitting next to your colleagues, collaboration is a given. If you’re thinking about something, it’s easy to shout it out or ask a neighbor a question and get an answer or course correction immediately. When you’re working remotely, you have to think about the best way to collaborate, what tools to use, which colleague will be most helpful, etc.
  4. IT struggles to support remote employees: Based on a survey of remote employees we conducted over the summer, 36% of employees are experiencing more IT issues than before while working from home. Plus, 69% of employees stated they feel disrupted when IT is resolving their issues, which can be detrimental to productivity and culminate in anger and frustration.
  5. Culture is more difficult to maintain: Sometimes, the best ideas and thought starters can come from social, unplanned conversations, like water cooler chat and informal mingling in the hallways. Unfortunately, these types of social interactions are less likely to occur in a remote setting. Structure can sometimes obstruct creative thinking and the free flow of ideas. With only formal meetings on calendars and no time dedicated to light conversations or fun brainstorms, employees can feel stifled.

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

  1. Executives find it hard to give up on presenteeism: We need to look for new mechanisms, processes and tools to measure whether people are delivering outcomes and delivering them in the way businesses want and expect them. Executives need to increasingly move away from evaluating employees based on the number of hours worked and shift toward outcome-based work.
  2. Communication and collaboration tools cause disruption: Organizations should zero in on one interface. Employees need a single interface that they don’t have to switch in and out of — we should be doing our work in the same place as where we’re collaborating and communicating. We need to find the most seamless, effective tools and consolidate on the back end.
  3. Collaboration requires more discipline when everyone is remote: Because course corrections don’t happen as regularly in the remote setting, businesses should and need to encourage much faster communication across teams to mirror an in-person experience.
  4. IT struggles to support remote employees: First and foremost, IT needs to better understand the remote employee experience, by regularly collecting feedback and communicating with employees. Only 50% of service desks ask employees for feedback after the fact and 64% of IT organizations do not routinely ask employees about their IT experience, which is concerning. Once employee needs and issues are elevated, IT departments must focus on real-time remediation and self-service capabilities to help minimize IT-induced downtime and disruption.
  5. Culture is more difficult to maintain: Managers and organizations should encourage employees to connect across departments more regularly, scheduling separate sessions for more informal dialogue, socializing and idea-sharing. Once it’s safe to gather and be around one another, businesses can look at turning traditional office space into collaboration space where groups can use the space to meet and organize.

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?

My first suggestion would be to schedule a video or Zoom call, rather than trying to deliver feedback over email. In fact, 1E has invested in external coaches to help with this. Now, our HR teams are actively training all managers across our employee base to support remote teams via video.

Even though you’re on video, it’s still important to observe the basics of constructive criticism. Fundamentally, you need to determine what your desired outcome is — in other words, what is it you’re trying to achieve? Next, the key is to be as authentic and transparent as possible. When both of these are present, it ensures your criticism is constructive. Ultimately, you’ll find success when you’re coming from a good place and can give actionable, tangible steps for achieving the desired outcome.

Don’t forget the importance of eye contact on video calls either. It’s obvious when you’re looking at yourself, rather than the camera or the other attendee. It’s also critical to focus on the conversation at hand and not be multitasking.

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

First and foremost, my recommendation is to avoid giving feedback over email. For serious matters, I encourage you to suggest a video call instead. As soon as you can look at the other person and start talking to them, you’re equalized and on the same level. Email is a disconnected medium, which makes it easy to misread sentiment and emotion.

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?

While we’ve found employees are adjusting incredibly well to remote work, I would caution against how much time is spent in formal, structured meetings. The majority of lower- and mid-level employees are being asked to attend more meetings than ever before. We need to be mindful of how many hours people are working and allow for more productivity throughout the day, reducing the need for after hours.

Beyond cutting back on meeting time, it’s also important to find ways to make meetings more efficient. By carefully planning ahead, determining what outcome or decision needs to be reached and hand-selecting meeting attendees, we can make the time spent in meetings more valuable.

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 believe that businesses should urge their employees to schedule separate sessions and time for unstructured conversation. Without the typical in-person water cooler chat and on-the-fly brainstorms, it’s important to make sure employees still feel like they have an informal, social outlet. Plus, the more you can encourage people from different departments to spend time socializing and connecting, the better. It’s so easy for businesses to lose touch across teams.

And, in lieu of in-person events and celebrations, look for organized and interactive virtual activities. We’ve seen employees respond well to things like trivia games and magic shows that promote involvement and participation. It’s always a good idea to extend an invitation to spouses and kids, too. Make it a family affair!

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. 🙂

With great influence and power comes great responsibility. I would encourage anyone that’s running a business to try and leave the world a better place than when they found it. Each and every software we design at 1E is developed with a larger mission in mind. Now, with more people working remotely full-time than ever before, I believe we’re at a major turning point. Business leaders have an opportunity to commit to improving the lives of their employees. By adopting long-term remote work as a strategic initiative, we can make the way we work much more enjoyable and efficient. Let’s work on delivering a first-class digital experience to our employees, comparable to an in-office experience, and open the door to more flexibility and choice.

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

I think we can all agree that this past year has been incredibly tough. We owe it to ourselves to toast to all that we’ve achieved despite the many setbacks and challenges. For this particular moment, there’s no quote that resonates more than Lily Bollinger’s from the House of Bollinger Champagne:

“I drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise, I never touch it — unless I’m thirsty.”

Thank you for these great insights!

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