When in doubt, communicate. There is no such thing as too much communication when you are working with a remote team. Receiving early feedback will help the section and yourself adjust to the best practices for the project. The goal of your communication is to give visibility to what you’re doing.
Weare 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 Carlos Lastres.
Carlos is a Costa Rican native living in China. He is a Software Engineer and UX/UI designer currently living out his dreams as the Creative Director of Kaiyan Medical, one of the largest and most innovative LED light therapy manufacturers in the world. With a Master’s Degree in Marketing and a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering, he has over 11 years of experience working for companies worldwide and prides himself in being able to work cross-culturally with people in Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the US. In the span of his career, he has built solid remote teams across the world that work seamlessly to deliver impactful results.
His remote journey started when he was in the HP Labs team, and he knew he needed to coordinate with brilliant minds worldwide. Back then, he learned a lot about communication, management, and responsibilities. These learnings have been the foundation of his remote working future.
Nowadays, he keeps a hybrid remoted working version in which he has different working spaces to do remote work. This way, he keeps a balance between home, entertainment, and work.
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? Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Ihave to say it was in Japan. I met this remarkable man, Brad, who invited me to join the climbing of mount Fuji. I had no idea what was going to be, and I was on holiday by myself, so I decided to join the team. It was harder than I thought. The team (around 40 people) started to spread. Some were faster and others slower — each small group with a team leader. I decided to stay with Brad. It was raining a lot, I was so cold, and I remember this girl from the US army struggling to climb up after hours. We supported each other and tried to distract ourselves because we couldn’t see too much due to the weather, so we never knew how far we were. I was keeping myself together because more and more people were trying to give up. After 7–8 hours, we reach almost the top. Then I remember to look up and see the moon like never before. Somehow, I couldn’t hear anything else, and all my energy was focused on the moon. I felt there was no time and space. It was only me and the moon. That moment I learned the most crucial lesson in remote work: finding peace in chaos. Once you get that peace, everything starts to get organized.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure whether the storm is over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
― Haruki Murakami
Something China taught me, it’s to face the storm. I see so many people running away from obstacles and trouble and making “safe” moves, and keeping it “simple.” You don’t change and improve by keeping it safe. You don’t get to have a better version of yourself until you go for it.
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?
Many people have helped me to be where I am, and I’m grateful to all of them — names like Jason Mao, Ciaran McClinton, Junchen, Neo Wang, among many others. However, in the latest years, I have been receiving good feedback and learning by example from Alain Dijkstra. Not only a fantastic person but also a great leader. I have been learning about business and life with him for the past years.
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?
Having a team physically together helps with the connection between team members. You can see the people, share with them, get to know more about what they like by paying attention to them. This can give a very productive work atmosphere in which you feel you are collaborating with society.
Another benefit, it’s direct control. When there’s an issue, it’s easier to call the people up for a meeting. If you have a significant decision to make, you can gather the team around and take the votes, and so on.
Finally, for some companies is easier to maintain confidentiality. The onsite working makes sure the company software is installed that maintains secrecy, does not allow certain documents or information to be downloaded or copied.
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?
I’ll say the biggest challenge is direct control. Gathering everybody for a quick meeting can be tricky if the team is not on site. Schedules and so on differ a lot when the unit is not the same space. With an international team, they won’t even be in the same time zone.
Second, a significant side effect of remote work is feeling isolated and disconnected from the team. This could lead to performance issues and trust issues.
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.)
Choose dedicated communication channels and stick to them
There are many tools you can use for managing a remote team. It’s easy to get carried away into a tool overload. You may end up with a confusing mix of tools that your team does not know how and when to use.
Many of these have overlapping features and functionalities. For example, you can use both WeChat and Zoom to make video calls, so if you have both, which one should be used for video calls? So it’s essential that you carefully select a list of tools and define how to use these.
Story: I set up different channels for different teams/projects, and I love it. If I open a telegram, I already know which project partners I’m going to find, and I know everything related to the project will be there. So it’s like I get into the project “mood.” Then if I open Slack, I change my mind and get ready for the next project. In the end, I get the platforms more personal, and I add flavors to each one of them by making them specific for teams.
Video calls, video calls, video calls
This is the most effective way to improve communication and increase the performance of your remote team. Seeing your team members in real-time, laughing, sharing, and simply being there makes it more accessible. Seeing each other regularly builds familiarity and bonding, challenging with faceless people in a conference call.
Story: I remember the beginning of COVID here in China. We were in a powerful lockdown. The mood was going down, so I remembered playing video call games during meetings with team members. This improved the mood drastically. We had video calls that made the team members get ready and be presentable and see each other. We were struggling, but we worked together. Instead of just being there lazy on lockdown, we made sure we kept ourselves sharp to share with the others.
When in doubt, communicate.
There is no such thing as too much communication when you are working with a remote team. Receiving early feedback will help the section and yourself adjust to the best practices for the project. The goal of your communication is to give visibility to what you’re doing.
At all times, you can ask yourself two questions:
Story: I learned this rule from a remote peer, Konstantin, from Russia. He was so expressive and straight to the point about what he was doing, making sure everybody knew, even when screwed up, he let the team know about it so we all could help him. Because it was straight to the point, we never bothered the team and the flow of communication.
Online communication tools are meant to boost productivity and save time. But if you are always: “online”, it can give everyone the impression that every moment is the right one to chat. This leads to them becoming disruptive, as they lower general productivity and employee focus on the tasks at hand.
Story: I was working remotely with a team in Singapore. Step by step, we were creating schedules — little 15min chats of work elements. 10:30 am was the standup meeting. 11:00 am was usually time for design issues. 2:00 pm was a personal chat while resting from lunch. 4:00 pm was business issues chat time, and so on. So we always had spaces between being free and quiet to do our work and prepare for the next “wave” of communicatio
Don’t watch over people’s shoulders.
It’s about trust. Your team members are responsible adults, even when they work remotely. You don’t need to micromanage to make sure they work. Working remotely, I learned that in 2 hours of freedom and concentration, you could do the work of 8 hours. If you keep bothering your team with “urgent” tasks, you will disrupt their flow. It’s essential to make your team members feel trusted and wanted.
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?
Generally, we let the employees use their phones unless they require a work-specific line. So far, we haven’t found any issue with it and allow them to organize better all their schedule. Nevertheless, some clients may want to call you 24/7. So here, the important thing is to set up expectations about communication and also the program. I love to use Calendly because I can set up my available times and just let the people choose. They feel in control because they can choose based on their calendar, and I have better control over my working and leisure time by filtering my hours.
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?
I’ll split the tools by categories. For management, I like the way Asana works. It makes me feel we are all together coordinating our tasks. For messages and calls, Slack & Zoom are just priceless. Finally, for design and brainstorm, I love Figma.
If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?
I believe it is not about the tool but about who’s the user. Instead of focusing on creating the “perfect” communication feature, I’ll try to educate the people around me to communicate better to use any tool. With this, we solve the root of the problem.
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?
I think COVID was a wake-up call for us. We were not prepared for something like that; we learned a lot from it. I’ll say the essential requirement is education. We need to change the way we educate and get educated. Schools should have hybrid versions of communication in which we can use the best sides of each world.
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?
Yes, of course. Currently, I’m developing prototypes on AR, which I found fascinating. There’s nothing like having the actual product, but If I can visualize a render just popping on from my device camera, it allows me to have a better perspective about space, size, and shape. Second, VR is becoming better and better every day. I’m dreaming about the day I can see full-body peers using my VR and feel like we are in the same room while we are spread worldwide.
Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?
Yes, of course. I don’t become a simpler version of the matrix where we are all connected all the time. I never will replace a short physical meeting with a VR meeting. Right now, I’m suggesting people in the office have walking meetings. I cannot get the health and mental benefits of a walking meeting over a digital world. The virtual world can be whatever we can affect the sanity of our brains. The secret is always to find the balance between reality and the digital world.
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?
I’m currently in China. We love to invite people here to check our projects and office and enjoy the beauty of China, but no, it isn’t straightforward. A significant percentage of clients are abroad, so we turn all the interaction with them online. We try to keep it as accurate as possible by having virtual tours where we walk over a zoom call and show our office around to the clients. As I said before, we send mobile compatible AR to clients to have a better perspective and always follow the rule of a video call when we need to communicate something with them. We don’t use chatbots because we still want to keep that human touch. We want the customer to know that a natural person behind the screen takes care of them.
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?
Well, I think this issue is more profound than we think. From the beginning, the flow of communication between the team members should be pretty open and mature. We should teach our remote team that constant feedback is good for the company and personal development. I know it’s easier to read a dissatisfaction face, but with a small group, we actually can use other ways. First, I’ll say, extend the amount of time you spend clarifying the goals, priorities, and expectations. When you need to discuss sensitive feedback, ask them to tell their story about that specific development. Ask them about all the factors involved. You can learn about a lot them and their restrictions and improve the overall teamwork. Finally, make sure you give positive feedback and keep the morale high. Maintaining a good balance between the highlights of each member, it’s beneficial.
Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?
Back in the day, when I used to be in the office the whole time, I shared a lot during lunchtime and tried to get to know each team member. Now, there’s no such thing as sharing “remote” lunchtime, so you have to be creative and ask a lot. I always like to have a “jukebox” channel (usually on slack) to ask the team members to share their favorite songs. Knowing the favorite song of everybody can tell you a lot about them and will allow you to find things in common. Second, ask them about their weekend plans and hobbies and find common grounds. Every time you have a new team member, ask them to talk about their country (if you have an international team). This will make them feel more comfortable, and you will learn about new cultures and ways of think. Finally, make sure you share with them and do some remote games. Take some time during “working” time to play some design thinking games to understand the team better.
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. :-)
We are always talking about how to make the team betters or how to use the technology better, but what about genuinely finding ourselves? What about returning to our instincts. I’d love to have a movement in which we take one day per week and try to reconnect with ourselves. Things like walk barefoot, wake up with the sunrise instead of the alarm. Be quite a contemplating nature. Listen to the wilderness. Build a fireplace to chat with the people you care about. Watch the sunset with people you care about and so on. We have this paralyzing fear of running out of time that we forget totally where we came from as humans and how we evolved. Following a movement like this, we will naturally feel in balance and control of our lives. This will improve our mood, health, and general performance.