Walter Marin: “Another challenge is maintaining an efficient structure”

In the early days of the pandemic, we struggled to purchase enough remote licenses for the team quickly. We only had seven at the time, and suddenly everybody needed that access. We also offered to upgrade the home internet speeds for all of our team members to ensure that everyone could stay connected and productive. […]

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In the early days of the pandemic, we struggled to purchase enough remote licenses for the team quickly. We only had seven at the time, and suddenly everybody needed that access. We also offered to upgrade the home internet speeds for all of our team members to ensure that everyone could stay connected and productive.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Walter Marin.

Walter Marin was born in Latin America but raised in the heart of New York. The son of an immigrant cabinetmaker, he was raised with an appreciation for craftsmanship that led to his life-long love of the built environment. He completed a BS/BA in Architecture in 1982 and worked with well-known architectural design firms including the Howard Golden firm prior to establishing Marin Associates in 1985. Upon obtaining his architectural certification, Walter converted his growing firm into Marin Architects. Supported by Walter’s keen business sense and creative aptitude, the firm has since developed a strong roster of repeat clientele and a sterling reputation. Ever community-minded, Walter gives back by participating in Embrace Relief, and in the past has served as the Vice Chair of The National Hispanic Business Group and the Bronx Community College Foundation Board. Walter is NCARB-certified.

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 started my own firm out of pure ignorance over thirty years ago. Starting my firm was not driven by ego; I focused on doing the project for the one client I had, then I hired one person, then another, and so forth.

Two years after starting the firm, I began to doubt myself. I thought it wasn’t going anywhere and started looking for other opportunities. Someone offered me a great deal of money to work from them, and I had a realization that if this person trusted me enough to offer this much, how could I not trust myself? So I stuck to my guns, and over the past three decades, the firm has grown consistently and has become more sophisticated. When you’re 30 years old, people tell you that no one will give you anything significant until you’re 45. So I thought, “Well, I have 15 years to get it right. I’ll be ready by then!”

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

At one point, during the earlier years of the firm, we had a single client that accounted for roughly 85% of our work at the time. One morning, we got a phone call telling us that we needed to stop all work for them. In an instant, nearly all of our work went out the window. We had to rush out and try to get whatever projects we could find. This was an incredibly eye-opening experience and one that has stuck with me. I learned never to get into a situation where any one client was too big.

There was another point when almost all of our new clients were in retail. The retail industry took a downturn, and we lost most of these clients in a single afternoon. From this, we have learned to diversify and ensure that our client roster has a healthy balance across different market sectors. Our survival has depended on this commitment to variety.

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?

Something that could easily have been a terrible mistake turned out to be quite a fortunate step in my career. I had done a good deal of research to determine who the head of construction was for a major drug store chain. I called him every single day to get his business. He could easily have turned around and told me to get lost. Interestingly enough, one morning, I got a phone call from him, saying that he wanted to come to New York and meet me. He told me that anyone who was that persistent deserved to be hired. This gave our young firm a considerable boost, and to this day, we are great friends. It turned out that the key was being so annoying that it was easier to give me a job than ignore me!

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

Whenever I interview someone for a position, I fully understand their goals and what motivates them. I interviewed a young woman who wanted to be an attorney but gave that up to become an expediter. I will never forget that her dream was to be an attorney, and I will go out of my way to help her figure out how to achieve that dream, even if it means losing her.

Everyone is asked this question in some form, and I always remember what they say. If you can align someone’s goal with the job at hand, you end up with great retention rates. Too often, interviewers make the mistake of only focusing on selfish questions without making sure they understand what the interviewee is looking for as well.

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 five years of experience managing one person remotely. Of course, this was quite different than the situation at hand now. This particular employee had worked with us for eight years in our New York office, and was a crucial part of the team. When she told us she was moving to New Orleans, I said, “You can leave but you can’t quit!” We figured out how to make it work remotely.

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. In the early days of the pandemic, we struggled to purchase enough remote licenses for the team quickly. We only had seven at the time, and suddenly everybody needed that access. We also offered to upgrade the home internet speeds for all of our team members to ensure that everyone could stay connected and productive.
  2. One primary challenge is keeping your team committed. When the pandemic hit, everyone felt that their job was threatened. That fear was a more significant obstacle to overcome than any other changes. As soon as my team understood that the world had changed, but they would keep their jobs, they were happy to do whatever was asked of them. It became much easier to adapt.
  3. Another challenge is maintaining an efficient structure. Let’s say I have five people who report to me, and each of those people have five who report to them. By keeping your team well structured, at no point does it become so overwhelming that you can’t manage the process.
  4. Everyone who is working remotely is going to have a different schedule. Some employees have children or family at home to take care of, which requires a great deal of flexibility. Everyone has to put in their 40-hour work week, but I am flexible about when those hours are put in. Some might start at 7:00am so they can finish by 3:00pm. We even have a young woman currently based in Turkey who works from 4:00pm to midnight to accommodate our time zone! The ability to be flexible for your staff is critical.
  5. One of the biggest challenges of remote working is ensuring that every team member has a comfortable working environment. One employee worked on a laptop from her bed every day, and I decided that wasn’t right. I made quite a big investment to provide everyone with a home set-up that would feel most like their office. I offered to supply every person with double monitors, docking stations, and even desks if needed.

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

I think I covered this in my last response!

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?

We have a virtual meeting with the entire staff every Monday, and each individual team has their own meeting that functions similarly. We try to encourage any problems or issues to be brought up in these meetings so they can be addressed. The closest we really get to reprimanding someone in our office is reminding them that a task did not get finished, and needs to be prioritized. People are going to make mistakes, and I am OK with that as long as the situation gets properly addressed and nobody tries to hide it. For this reason, I really can’t remember a time over the past twelve months where I truly had to admonish somebody. I think there are better ways of handling issues that arise. Again, it’s very important to be flexible with your staff, and remember that everyone is feeling their own pressure from being at home.

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

Negative emails result from insecurity. Often people try to cover up their own insecurities by putting them onto somebody else. I never use any negativity level over email, and instead, try to focus on better ways of solving the problem at hand. Leading with diplomacy will always bring better results.

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?

The frequency of virtual meetings was strange at first, but it is surprising how well we have all adjusted. If someone shares their window on a virtual meeting, you can have multiple people working together on something at one time, and this team effort becomes addictive. We’ve found that our meetings are more productive virtually than they were in person! Sitting at a table with four people, it can be hard to all look at the same thing at once. This has been a big shift even now as we have some team members coming to the office. Four of us can be in the office together, but will still choose to jump on a Zoom call!

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?

Before the pandemic, you could go out to a coffee shop with your coworkers and have a friendly chat. The question now is how to get that coffee shop experience without the coffee? We are still working out the best way to do this. Recently we started doing virtual “happy hours.” There have been mixed results, and we are still working out the kinks, but it is essential to find a team-building, uniting experience that is not results-driven.

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 would want to inspire a movement focused on work-life balance. I believe deeply in spending an equal amount of time on your career as your personal life. If you can maintain that balance, you will be a great family member and a great employee. If you’re an attorney working 14 hours a day, six days a week, what is left on the other side once you take out sleep? In our office, no one works beyond 6:00pm. This is a rule, not a concept. Quality of life is just as important as the health of a company.

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

In many of our conversations, the word “try” is put in front of a task. However, I’ve learned over the years that the word “try” is just advance notice that it is not going to happen!

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