Tony Stewart of scarlettabbott: “Know your place”

We were excellent when it came to taking our meetings and projects online, quickly. But we need to make sure we’re being just as intentional with our one-to-ones, coffee chats and check ins as we are with our projects. With fewer opportunities to make those moments happen organically, we have to deliberately show up for […]

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We were excellent when it came to taking our meetings and projects online, quickly. But we need to make sure we’re being just as intentional with our one-to-ones, coffee chats and check ins as we are with our projects. With fewer opportunities to make those moments happen organically, we have to deliberately show up for each other.


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 Tony Stewart.

As head of digital at scarlettabbott, Tony Stewart brings unrivaled passion to his work in the employee engagement space. Weaving together his expertise in collaboration, community and communication, Tony joins the digital dots to find solutions that solve internal communications challenges for major brands across the globe. From apps to chatbots, social media platforms to enterprise social networks, Tony surfaces and translates the business benefit through a deep understanding of both message and medium.


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 started my comms career working in the mayor of London’s office. In the beginning, I was working with the mayor’s external communications, but I found the community too big and it felt difficult to make a meaningful impact with the volumes of correspondence. I made the move to internal comms and it was a real lightbulb moment. I was able to communicate our strategy effectively inside the organization and immediately see the impact it made, which in turn made a positive impact on the city I loved.

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

I don’t have a particular story, more an observation that truly shaped me and how I work. Earlier in my career, I worked at NBC Universal International. It was a massive global organization which, while incredibly joined up in its purpose of creating incredible entertainment experiences for people, had a diverse culture across the organization.

The ways that people praised each other and the micro-cultures in each geography were so different. Seeing how a company could have so many facets and still do a good job was a lesson in what good could look like. Bringing it all together and supporting the employee experience was one of the biggest challenges of my career — but certainly one of the most rewarding.

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

I have two mantras that I fall back on routinely. The first is something my university tutor used to say: “Don’t think about the frame, think about what’s deserving of framing.”

When it comes to communications platforms, it’s easy to get swept up in the technology. But we also must keep our focus on the content, purpose and outcome.

The second is: “Don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh.” There are so many iterations of this. Essentially, it’s a good reminder to deliver on what you promise, and focus on what people do, not what they say.

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?

When you’ve worked in comms for 20 years, I think it’s hard to pick one. We’re a very supportive and generous community and I’ve had some incredible bosses.

I’ve been lucky to work for some incredible women in my career and I have so much admiration for their leadership. I’d have to thank Charelle Wigley, my former manager at NBC Universal. The level of trust and belief she showed me truly allowed me to unlock my potential. When I’d say, “I think we should do this …” she’d reply with, “No, we’re going to do this.” She taught me to trust my judgement and abilities as an internal communicator.

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’s definitely something to be said for the impact of online only communication on our ability to be spontaneous in our interactions, and how this impacts camaraderie. In person, there’s more opportunity for spur of the moment coffee chats and conversations in the corridor. But in our back-to-back Zoom world, so much is scheduled and regimented.

In the physical workplace, we pick up a lot of ambient information about the projects we’re working on, or how our colleagues are feeling generally, all of which gives us much richer context and understanding.

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?

So much of how we communicate, read, and understand each other lies in body language, much of which is often too subtle to perceive through a screen.

A lot of how we compartmentalize our understanding of others, and how we relate to them, lies in physicality. Those that started a new job in the last 18 months may have never met their managers or their teams in person, and only have a 2D understanding of them — with no experience of that person’s presence.

It can also be difficult to follow the thread of a project. A lot of organizations that had to switch to online collaboration simply hadn’t worked that way before. You have to find your feet with the right platforms and places that works for your team. You can have issues around version control, or miss something important among all the noise and notifications.

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 Be intentional about human connection

We were excellent when it came to taking our meetings and projects online, quickly. But we need to make sure we’re being just as intentional with our one-to-ones, coffee chats and check ins as we are with our projects. With fewer opportunities to make those moments happen organically, we have to deliberately show up for each other.

2 Know your place

We have a lot of options at our fingertips. From incumbent platforms, to fancy new tech, there are a lot of places our work can happen. Pick a place and stay there. If you have a core working platform, or at least a structured collection of platforms for your team, you’ll have a better record of what’s happening and clearer direction for new people coming in.

3 Level up your empathy

In the physical workplace, you can assume that those twenty or so people in the room are having more or less the same experience of a meeting. Now, as we work from multiple locations, there are a lot more variables. It’s vital to be empathetic to the different situations your team may be in and how they experience those meetings.

Let’s make sure we think about balancing that experience when your team is split between office and remote working. If most are physically with you, and a couple are dialing in, think about the experience if, for example, if you have a straw poll moment; are they properly included?

4 Don’t assume digital capability

After the past 18 months, it’s easy to assume that we’re all fluent digital nomads. But the reality is that a lot of people will have only learned what they needed to get by. Often that means digitally recreating workflows, rather than harnessing digital tools to evolve a process — plus many won’t have had the training needed to flourish in a remote working environment. Create a safe space for people to ask questions, no matter how basic.

5 Take responsibility/be actively engaged in learning

It’s important that employees are empowered to experiment, try, iterate and fail safely when it comes to new ways of working — and that they take responsibility for giving new things a try in the ways they do thing at work, too.

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?

Before the pandemic hit, I’d been working remotely from Berlin, with most of our team based in Yorkshire. I was ‘the satellite office’, banging the drum for digital collaboration. Many of our clients worked with me on their digital strategies. But internally, we didn’t have the need until we were all suddenly remote workers. It’s been fascinating to watch ourselves become one of many hybrid working case studies.

Technologically speaking, we’d all been working in Teams for a long time, so adapting to the platform wasn’t an issue. What was important though, was maintaining our culture. A lot of who we are lived in our office — a converted chapel — and the shared experience that grew there.

Now, we’re welcoming new team members around the country and we’re very mindful about making sure they feel they can put their stamp on scarlettabbott, too. Culture is a two-way flow.

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?

We’ve seen so many platforms come to the fore of digital collaboration in the last year. And whether it’s new features like Together Mode in Teams, shared employee networks like Workplace, or virtual meeting spaces like Kumospace, more companies are trying to recreate the in-person experience.

For us, we’re still using the same platforms we did before — Teams and SharePoint. We’re seeing clients keen to explore new options — but whatever you use must meet the needs and appetite of your people. You don’t necessarily need a whole infrastructure when the platforms you have could be just as effective with a little more knowledge and understanding.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

That’s such a good question! I think we’ve all gotten used to communicating on little screens now. We exist in small boxes. I’d prefer to see options that better echo the physicality of the person you’re talking to, whether that be holograms, VR or projected images. Tech that helps recreate — as much as we can — the presence of someone in the room with you.

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?

Anything that can support employee workflows and connectivity is a good thing, but the pandemic has demonstrated the danger when it comes to a lack of boundary setting and maintaining a proper work-life balance in a hybrid working environment.

Communications following ‘where we are’ can be convenient and support productivity, but it could also overstep boundaries and make us feel even more tethered to our virtual desks. So while hyper-connectiveness can be appealing, it has to be very considered, too.

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?

So, it’s not a specific technology, but a concept. I truly think gamification is one of the most powerful, but most underutilized tools internal communicators can harness to drive behavior change.

Gamification isn’t new: we see it daily in the apps we use. But like a lot of things that take off through external marketing, it takes a while to take hold in internal communications.

What is exciting is that the technology to create these experiences is far more accessible and affordable now. The barrier to entry has been lowered and we have so much use case data to demonstrate how effective it is.

Take the return to work. If leaders want to encourage their people to achieve a healthy balance as they return to work, why not gamify the experience? When people hit the averages you want to see, reward it.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

You need a clear vision of the behaviours you want to change. Often gamification misses the mark because the parameters set aren’t right. For example, you want to gamify new sign ups to your new enterprise social network. You choose to reward sign ups with a prize, and you see a huge sign-up rate.

But beyond that, there’s no engagement. You need to reward the people who share knowledge or contribute to the community and support the strategic objectives of the platform itself — that’s where meaningful change lies.

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 used to see our clients in the real world a lot more. Now, as with everything else, it’s Teams calls and Zoom meetings. It’s saved a lot of time and travel, but we do miss the in-person experience. At scarlettabbott, we always say that we want every interaction with our team to be the best one our clients have that day — the call they look forward to. We can still do that in the digital world, but of course, it’s more of a challenge when every meeting looks the same!

Something we’ve really enjoyed in the past year has been our webinars. Early in the pandemic, we started running timely and topical Q&A session with the comms community, to help share knowledge and tackle challenges. We’ve had so many brilliant conversations because of those events.

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?

Honestly, I think the fundamentals of good communication are the same, however you have that conversation. It’s all about intent and authenticity.

  1. Set expectations up front. Communicate with your team member ahead of a meeting to set expectations about what you want to talk about. Give them an opportunity to reflect beforehand so they’re not caught off guard.
  2. Protect the time. Book some protected time for you to meet that won’t be cut short or interrupted.
  3. Replicate a face to face meeting. If you can’t meet in person, replicate as much of that experience as you can. Use video so you can both see each other expressions and gestures.
  4. Listen. Give your team member plenty of time to articulate themselves and respond to the feedback you give them.
  5. Make a plan. Do you need to see evidence of change or progress? Book in another meeting for a set time, set some goals and catch up on them.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

There are so many in-built features available in our platforms now to help create moments of celebration and togetherness. We’re big fans of using praise features and giving shoutouts to each other for great ideas — or jobs well done.

Non-work networks are also a great way to build camaraderie. Movie recommendations, new mum clubs or hobby-centric spaces all help teams get to know each other better.

And don’t forget to take things offline when you can too. We love being able to create meaningful moments in person, like sending a gift pack in the post for everyone to open at the same time. We’ve sent prosecco to the team to have a shared toast, wellbeing packs to give everyone a treat and gifts to reward achievements. Don’t underestimate the power these gestures have.

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. 🙂

It may not be a movement, but I’d encourage everyone to learn as much about themselves as possible. If you learn more about yourself, you can know what drives you, what motivates you and how you interact with others.

That’s why I wholeheartedly believe that everyone should try drag at least once in their life. It’s healthy, insightful and exciting — it’s like turning your regular self up to 11, exaggerating yourself with make-up and fashion.

You learn so much about yourself when you aren’t yourself –and then you can be more yourself.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can connect with me on Linkedin, or follow me on Twitter @TSDigi.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

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