Ilkka Mäkitalo of Howspace: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

We can’t create a sense of camaraderie only in separate team-building meetings. Camaraderie and nurturing working relationships need everyday attention in each connection point between colleagues, this requires that every individual pays attention to how we work and communicate together. Getting together with your team members should be about connecting with each other, hearing different perspectives and opinions and co-creating together, not just sharing tasks. Technically speaking the most crucial thing is to always have the cameras and mics on.

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 Ilkka Mäkitalo.

Ilkka Mäkitalo, CEO and co-founder of Howspace, is also the father of the Howspace digital platform. Ilkka’s passion is in participative leadership, digitally facilitated organizational development, and the future of work. Ilkka has a strong background in change management consultancy and has been working for over 20 years in the consultation and organizational development business.

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’ve always coordinated groups of people — even as a kid I was the one getting others together. Quite often, I find myself in a leadership role or coordinating position. I think that’s because I’m always looking for ways to improve, develop and make changes in my life. I always see opportunities to do things better, and how tech can enable connections and processes that weren’t possible before. I think it’s important to help others, and enable them to help others, too.

Perhaps because I’ve always wanted to help others, it’s no surprise that I was previously a primary school teacher in Finland. I realized that in order to understand the whole school system, I needed to study more, so I studied educational sciences where I learned about organizational change and coaching. I also studied digital media in graduate school and got more familiar with qualitative research methods, growing into an attitude where real life is a continuous target of exploring things.

In the 90s, I started my first company. Initially, I was on my own but I eventually found some colleagues that I loved to work with through our teaching classes, and we named the company Humap — human maps and apps. The company had a consulting part and a technology part, so in 2008 we decided to split the company in two. About three years ago we re-branded the software company as Howspace. There have been dozens of different products we’ve launched previously, but the goal has always been the same: help people make sense of each other and transform through collaborative processes.

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

I trust and believe in intuition. It can be related to people or to ideas. In the best scenarios these two are combined. Sometimes it is really obvious that someone needs to join the team. It might be that we don’t have an open position or I don’t know (exactly) what the new person will be doing. But the right people are doing the right thing. Sometimes an idea feels so strong that it just has to be done.

When we started to develop our Howspace platform we had those two in place: the right people and the strong idea. We started to develop the idea by doing projects for the customers. The first case was really simple, then the second one was built on top of that and so on. Evolutionary model. Each time we needed to do a lot of implementation and launch a programming process. At some point I thought that we were ready to move from project approach to product approach. My idea was to make a product where customers can make all the changes they need and we just develop the product in a way that enables them to design their own way of facilitating collaboration. When I introduced the idea to our tech team, they said that “we knew that this was coming and we have been working on it and it is almost ready”. I was totally surprised and so proud of them.

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

“Every human being makes the best possible decisions from their own point of view. If you don’t understand it, you need to be curious and not judge others.”

When we’re working remotely and don’t see each other every day, we tend to make assumptions about other employees — in our culture, we always make these assumptions positive. We assume that every human being is doing and making the best decisions from their perspective. If we don’t understand the intention, we ask curious questions such as “Can you help me to understand what you are doing and why?” Sometimes this requires a bit of bravery or collegial support in order to bring it up, but the cultural benefits of it are huge.

Another favorite of mine is: “no context, no meaning.” When things are clear for ourselves, we’re lazy in describing the context for others who “should” understand what we mean and our context. For example, when I’m heavily involved with the daily operations of our product and understand the user experience and pain points, I need to pay attention to communicating our developers what we would like them to work on — problems, customer needs, exactly why the functionalities need changes — for them to be able to know how and what to do.

Put yourself in the other’s shoes. It takes a certain amount of self-reflection to be able to communicate effectively so that all parties understand. Often the blame is put on the party that fails to understand, rather than the party that is communicating.

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?

I am extremely grateful to the founding partners of Humap Olli-Pekka and Vesa, without whom Howspace would not exist. We started training as teachers in different schools in Finland and discussed the workplace of our dreams, spending two hours every Sunday night during teacher training dreaming of being entrepreneurs. We thought about how to survive while still taking risks and being creative.

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 a 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 teams physically together allows for important “random meetings”. These types of discussions around the water cooler or the coffee machine aren’t organized but are extremely meaningful for employees. These meetings are authentic and can’t really be recreated. As human beings, we are used to a certain level of social capital and have a need to be connected. It’s really hard to achieve this when you’re officially meeting people — spur-of-the-moment meetings where you’re not talking about work and developing better relationships. Emphasis has been placed on team bonding virtually but it’s challenging when it needs more structure.

Another benefit of working physically in the same location is that we’re able to sense each other better. We’re able to pick up on signals such as body language to understand when to speak, keep quiet, give space, etc. Overall, it’s easier to control and focus your body language when present compared to when working remotely.

Additionally, context switches can become more tangible and more concrete when teams work in the same place. Usually, something physical happens in person to reset or refresh your mind, which can be much harder to achieve when working remotely asynchronously. Instead of going out for lunch or traveling to a client meeting, everything happens from your home, so your brain isn’t able to make a big enough distinction between work and break time.

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?

One of the main challenges surrounds making assumptions about the work of others when employees aren’t sharing the same context — meaning working in the same projects, being in the same meetings, or otherwise working collaboratively.

The key to this is asking the curious questions mentioned earlier, and avoiding making (negative) assumptions about others. This requires quite a mindset shift, but is very effective in building a positive culture around the hybrid work model. Employees at the office are not more popular than remotely working employees, just as remotely working employees are not more efficient than office workers. When decisions are made that you don’t understand, ask from a reinforcing point of view as to why that decision was made so that you can understand the thought process better.

Finding a sustainable way to work can also be challenging. Without the need to travel to each meeting or welcome guests or move around the office, it can be tempting to fill up calendars with back-to-back meetings. If this is endured for a significant amount of time, motivation losses and burnout are much more likely to happen. Time is needed to breathe, reset, and change your mindset before going into new meetings.

Multitasking is a big problem when team members are scattered remotely. Failing to consider and explain the purpose of the meeting beforehand as well as inviting too many or the wrong people lead to focus and multitasking problems. If meetings are about things you’re not interested in, you drift off and begin to do your own thing. Consider who is truly needed in that meeting, think about how to facilitate the meeting to get the most from people, and cancel or reduce the size of meetings that are unnecessary for everyone.

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. Communicate the big picture. The best possible situation is that the big picture is co-created by the team and is continuously on the move. That way, everyone knows that if they have new ideas or something to contribute, they have a chance to affect the big picture as a whole. This creates unity as well as access to greater creativity, expertise, and passion. The big picture doesn’t need to be crystal clear — it can be broad about who we are becoming. This gives employees energy, and when we place trust in what everyone is doing to further the same goal, it’s much easier to manage complexities in daily life.
  2. Put milestones in place. Communicating milestones and when they have been surpassed creates the feeling of accomplishment as a unit. Don’t just celebrate business KPIs, but also recognize and celebrate milestones on a personal level. Work is more than just being in a cave every day. Milestones can be celebrated on a weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual level, with things repeating on different scales.
  3. Utilize tech to better build relationships with clients and networks. Much of the focus of remote work has been on improving internal processes, but it’s also important to change the ways in which you work with external stakeholders and using technology as the enabler for this. How can your customers benefit from the time saved in remote work efficiency?
  4. Work around your life, don’t live around your work. The benefit of a hybrid work model is that employees can choose when to overlap synchronous and asynchronous work. Give employees the freedom and flexibility to plan their ways of working based on their preferences and energy levels. When are the times they can personally focus the most? Or if the weather is beautiful right now, go and swim. Work can be completed later when it’s colder and raining. Try to understand each other’s best ways of working. Discuss what’s all right, what harms others, and how to balance your personal life and work so that the team accomplishes the milestones set out in the big picture.
  5. Timing is everything. Designing collaboration is all about timing and understanding its dynamics. I’ve learned that when you have something on your mind when working remotely, write it down. Write it down while you have the energy to do so, and then think about if you want others to read this. Should you bring it up in a meeting, or organize a meeting about it, or is the time not right to discuss this at all? Don’t lose your ideas, as sometimes you might have the energy to go through this topic, but others have a full plate, so if you bring it up now, the idea might not fly. Even if it’s hard for you to wait while you have the passion for it, ask yourself, “can I wait for three weeks?” Writing things down gives you a different perspective, allowing your ideas to develop further, or informs you that the idea is trash and that it’s good you didn’t waste the time of others with it.

All in all, understanding your collaboration dynamics and how to facilitate the collaboration process so that things move ahead smoothly and generate a feeling of togetherness is what’s most important.

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?

We offer phones for most of our workers and their home internet connection is paid for by the company. This is generally a pretty standard policy in Finland. For team communication, we use Howspace and Slack!

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?

Tools like Slack, Teams, and other instant messaging platforms are good to a certain extent but they are really just streams of information without structure. Understanding the context and structure continuity is really important. We have a saying in Finnish, “Kadota kuin pieru Saharaan,” which roughly translates to “disappears like a fart in the Sahara.” This means that without the appropriate context and meaning, collaboration tools and structures are forgotten and waste time.

We have developed our own tool called Howspace that is a digital facilitation platform powered with AI, encouraging everyone to participate in collaboration and social learning. Everything we do is facilitated by Howspace, so preparing something in advance of the meeting, working in real-time during the meeting on Howspace’s platform, and then completing work afterward on Howspace provides everyone with the same shared context. This helps to replicate the benefits of being together in the same shared space. This way we can also support the people who were not able to join the meetings to keep on board. We don’t need to email any notes or memos of the meetings or workshops as everyone can be involved in the collaboration on the platform also later.

Also, be aware of notifications. Are they helping us or disturbing us?

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

That is my personal passion. I think this is exactly what we are doing in Howspace. In the core of Howspace are the endless possibilities of designing facilitated and structured discussions.

As we believe that people have the intrinsic need of being heard, we need to offer ways for organizations to hear their employees and collaborate. That’s the reason we are developing Howspace.

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?

The role of asynchronous communication and work is getting more and more important. We all spend way too much time in online meetings and that is seldom the most effective way of working. We need to create new practice and find the right tools for that. That is also something we try to do in Howspace.

It’s really important to try to create a permanent context of the process. Everyone needs to know the status of the process, how are we moving forward and what has been done previously. The collaboration can be synchronous or strongly asynchronous. The collaboration is happening in the context of the process and everyone has the possibility to follow it and has the opportunity to engage with the team whenever wherever.

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?

I am not (yet) a big fan of VR and AR technologies. At the moment they require clumsy devices and hardly ever there is a situation where everyone has the needed technology to collaborate. I am interested in finding different levels of online presence: how can we make the asynchronous experience better and more immersive and how to create a space between asynchronous and synchronous presence.

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

Self-management and self-leadership are becoming more and more important. When we are working from home, it can be hard to put limits between work and free time and it is easy to mentally stay at work when you should switch to something else. This can happen especially when the work we do is really purposeful.

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 are and have been almost 100% digital and remote. All customer meetings are online and it works pretty well.

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?

It needs to be done face to face, one to one, with videos on. Pay attention to how the meeting begins, don’t start with judgment statements. Start with an open mind, and ask questions. You need to hear the stories and what’s behind the behavior first. I’ve learned that there are often unrecognized challenges that might not be work-related, but are a part of the overall situation and affect work as well. If we don’t know the full story and jump into judging work behavior and performance, we make unfair conclusions, and decisions.

I also recommend asking for second or third opinions (if appropriate), so that perspective can be given when we’re not able to fully understand or empathize with people.

All in all, by rooting out communication difficulties and differences, we gain a clearer picture of how people are really feeling and can better address any issues or concerns they have. Often, goals and expectations are not communicated well enough or people lack mutual appreciation for each other and make negative assumptions. By being more inquisitive overall, these challenges can be averted and constructive criticism can be given with a better understanding of the situation.

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

This one also comes into curiosity: Always asking how people are doing as humans. “How are you” as a replacement for hello is not enough. When we connect on a deeper level, we get to know each other and also build trust. By listening to others and sharing some personal things and thoughts we get into different kinds of conversations, which is the easiest way to get people engaged with each other. Open communicating supports social connectivity.

At Howspace we have weekly virtual morning coffees and music quizzes together. We also encourage people to have one-to-one afternoon coffee breaks with team members they are not working closely together with (Slack helps with the pairing). The purpose of these get-togethers is purely increasing social connectivity — working and task oriented discussions are forbidden. This works, but is still not enough. We can’t create a sense of camaraderie only in separate team-building meetings. Camaraderie and nurturing working relationships need everyday attention in each connection point between colleagues, this requires that every individual pays attention to how we work and communicate together. Getting together with your team members should be about connecting with each other, hearing different perspectives and opinions and co-creating together, not just sharing tasks.

Technically speaking the most crucial thing is to always have the cameras and mics on.

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. 🙂

Movement of commitment to honesty, integrity and selflessness in the workplace: How to help others flourish in their job, and how to enable things that aren’t just about me but about others. Humbly serving our colleagues. Facilitating a way for people to share their ideas and not play social games like trying to say things that others would like to hear, but actually saying things they would like to say and get heard.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Feel free to contact me on Twitter or LinkedIn and follow the Howspace story, too!

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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